We have seen, then, that God is the all-powerful Creator and sovereign Lord of the universe. But what kind of king is He – good or bad? Is He a benevolent ruler, or a cruel tyrant? What is it like to have a relationship with Him personally? Is it even possible to have a relationship with Him? In short, what is His character like?
Moses, in the Old Testament, found out in a particularly dramatic episode recorded in Exodus chapters 33 and 34. Moses had led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and they had arrived at Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. But no sooner had Moses received the Commandments then the Israelites turned to idolatry and thereby provoked God to anger, threatening to destroy the venture before it had hardly begun. Moses interceded and God relented. But this raised the question about what to do going forward. God said that He would send His “angel” to guide and direct them, but that God himself would no longer be present with them.
Moses, then, was faced with the crushing burden of leading the nation almost by himself. Moses once again interceded and pled for God’s presence. And then Moses made this extraordinary request: “Please, show me Your glory” (Ex. 33:18; NKJV). God granted the request, and arranged to reveal Himself to Moses on top of the mountain. On the appointed day Moses stood on the mountain, the Lord descended, “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 transgression 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 fourth generation’” (Ex. 34:6,7). It was a definitive revelation of God’s own character.
So what is God like? The word translated “merciful” (Heb. rachum – “compassionate” – NASV) basically involves a sense of tender compassion, especially towards those in weakness or distress. The classic description is found in Psalm 103:13:
“As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.”
(The word translated “pities” comes from the same Hebrew root as rachum).
It is the very helplessness of the child that motivates the father to help him. He does so because he has a natural sympathy and compassion for his own offspring. So too, when God sees His spiritual offspring in need He is moved with compassion.
Then the passage says that God is “gracious,” which stems from the idea of showing favor to someone with an open-handed generosity. If anyone suffers need and cries out to God, God says, “I will hear, for I am gracious” (Ex. 22:27), and “The Lord will give grace and glory; / No good thing will He withhold / From those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11).
The text goes on to say that God is “longsuffering,” or “slow to anger,” as it might also be translated (NASV, ESV, NIV). The text does not say that God is never angry, but that He is “slow to anger.”
“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.”
While God may be justly angry with us, He does not give us the full punishment that we deserve.
Then the text says that God is “abounding in goodness and truth.” The word translated “goodness” (Heb. chesed) is often translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness.” It points to a disposition on God’s part to respond to the needs of His creatures. It would include the care that He exercises over His creation in designing things in such a way that they function together harmoniously – “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5b). It is also seen in His willingness to rescue those in distress:
“Nevertheless He regarded their affliction,
When He heard their cry;
And for their sake He remembered His covenant,
And relented according to the multitude of His mercies.”
And then the text says that God is full of “truth,” or “faithfulness” as the word might also be translated. The word implies consistency or reliability.
“The works of His hands are verity and justice;
All His mercies are sure.
They stand forever and ever,
And are done in truth and uprightness.”
Interestingly these last two terms are often combined together to form a single phrase, as they are in our text: “and abounding in goodness and truth” (Ex. 34:6), or as it might be translated, “and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (ESV). And yet the two terms are not exactly synonymous, but rather complement each other, as in Psalm 85:10:
“Mercy and truth have met together;
Righteousness and peace have kissed.”
“Mercy” or “lovingkindness” is a kind regard for the individual. “Truth” or “faithfulness” is a devotion to principle – God always does what is right and what He promised to do.
In the New Testament these ideas are combined to form the concept of “love,” and the Geek word agape is often used for this distinctively Christian type of love. “God is love” we are told in Scripture (I John 4:16). “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9,10). The love of God is self-sacrificing and directed toward the undeserving.
The practical implications of this are far-reaching. We do not live in an impersonal, amoral universe ruled by the law of the jungle. We are creatures of an all-wise and benevolent God and are accountable to Him for the way we live our lives. And He, in turn, is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.” That means that in the hour of trial we can look to Him for help.
“I will cry to God Most High,
To God who performs all things for me.
He shall send from heaven and save me;
He reproaches the one who would swallow me up. Selah.
God shall send forth His mercy and His truth.”
We still live in a sin-cursed world, filled with pain and sorrow. Yet God can bring us safely through.
But if God is love, if mercy and compassion are a part of His essential character, then it follows that this is what He expects from us as well.
“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?”
Do we “love mercy”? Our natural tendency as fallen human beings is to be self-centered and to take advantage of each other. But God wants us to be genuinely concerned about others – our family members, our neighbors, our fellow-workers, and the customers with whom we come in contact. That means that we will never want to insult them, or offend them, much less lie to them or cheat them. Rather we should be generous and kind toward all, always ready to help them in times of need. Because that is the way God is Himself, and that is what He expects of us.