WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – II
by Bob Wheeler
But what is God like in His personality and character? What is it like to deal with Him personally?
Here again the Bible has a great deal to say about the subject and only a brief summary can be given here. But there is a passage in the Old Testament that gives us such a summary, and it is found in Exodus 34:6,7. Moses has been on Mount Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments. Israel, in the meantime, had fallen into gross idolatry. Moses interceded with God on Israel’s behalf. God relented, but then Moses made a bold request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV), and God agreed to do so. On the appointed day Moses stood on top of the mountain,
“And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God,
merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth,
keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions and sin,
by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the
children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”
The statement begins by declaring that God is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (v. 6). He is “merciful and gracious.” The Hebrew word translated “merciful” refers to the compassion God has towards those who are weak and helpless. God’s “grace” refers to His free, unmerited favor. In other words, it is God’s nature to do good to His creatures. He is generous and compassionate.
And then our text says that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger as it might be more literally translated (NASV, ESV). God is patient with us. His anger is not quickly aroused. It is not that He never becomes angry – He has good reason to be angry with us because of our sin and rebellion against Him. But He is slow to anger. He is not easily provoked, and when He does become angry it is because it is well-deserved.
And then our text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth,” or “steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV). His “goodness” or “steadfast love” refers to God’s willingness and desire to show kindness to His creatures. His “truth” or “faithfulness” refers to the consistency and reliability of His character. He can be depended upon to keep His word.
Our text goes on to explain how this all works out in actual practice. First, God is “keeping mercy for thousands.” The word translated “mercy” here in verse 7is the same word translated “goodness” in verse 6. It is the kindness that God shows toward His creatures, and the fact that He “keeps” it “for thousands” shows how rich and abundant it is.
But there is more. He “forgives iniquity and transgression and sin.” This is what is truly remarkable. The implication here is that the objects of His attention are, in fact, sinners – they have sinned against Him and are guilty in His sight. The logical thing to do would be to punish them. Yet His kindness is displayed in His “forgiving” them. It is possible to be a guilty sinner and yet be forgiven.
Yet there is another side to this as well. For the text goes on to say, “by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children . . .” Is there a contradiction here? Does God forgive sin or does He not? The answer is that there is an implied but unmentioned condition. Sinners can be forgiven, if they repent. But if they persist in their sin and rebellion they will be punished. How is it possible for a just and holy God to forgive sins is not fully explained until the New Testament: God would sent His into the world to die on the cross as an atonement for our sin. God sent forth His Son “as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25,26). And so it was that Israel was warned that if they sinned they would be sent into exile; but if they repented they would be restored (Dt. 30:1-6; II Chron. 7:13; Jer. 29:10-14).
The text also says that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generations.” On the surface this hardly seems just: God is punishing one person (the son) for another person’ sin (the father’s). Strictly speaking, however, it is not a punishment directed toward the children and grandchildren, but a recognition that we are each affected by the decisions made by our parents. Bad decisions can have effects that last for generations. It ought to be a warning to all who treat sin lightly.
God is by nature kind, gracious and compassionate – He genuinely cares about the welfare of His creatures. But by the same token He is genuinely angry with those who are cold and indifferent, who abuse, exploit and mistreat others. God is love, and cruelty and injustice are an abomination in His sight.