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Explanation of Exodus 34:6-7.

The Importance Of Learning About God

It is very important to learn about God. The book of Jonah teaches very clearly what happens to believers who do not appreciate or understand God’s full character. Everything he does surprises them. They can’t comprehend his plan. Though they claim to believe, they find it difficult to trust him. Their belief narrows, myopically focusing only on the basics of their faith. And like Jonah, when God reveals something new or asks the unexpected, they freeze, run away or disobey. This is the sign of a very poor relationship with God, a very unfruitful, immature and ineffective faith. (Perhaps it should not even be called faith.)

Of all the verses in the Bible, Exodus 34:6-7 is probably the most marvellous. If it is not the most important, it certainly must rank near the top. This short passage is God’s proof and demonstration that he is who he says he is, and that he is worthy of our love and trust. Nowhere else in the Bible does God speak so intimately with a man. “Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock-” (Exodus 33:21). This is the only record of a man, Moses, standing next to the holy living God. Nowhere else in the Bible (except perhaps for Jesus), does man ever get this close.

God is described throughout the Bible by psalmists, prophets, priests, shepherds, commoners and kings. This is the only passage where he describes himself, and proclaims his name. Today names don’t seem important. In ancient times, a name was a person’s character. The name of a person was that person. Exodus 33:19 shows how important God’s name can be. It is the summation of God’s goodness, character, and even describes what he does: “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee-”

Moses wanted to know God better, and God proclaimed his name and showed his glory. The following is a short examination into the meaning of this passage. Many important aspects of God’s character are crammed into this short passage.

God’s Character

“And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed-” These are God’s direct words. It is not only important to remember what he said, but that he proclaimed it. Man’s talk is hot air. Nothing happens after it leaves his mouth. God’s words carries power (Isaiah 55:11). His words are alive, bear his character and nature. They act.

“The LORD, The LORD-” There is only one God, and the personal name that the Hebrews knew him by, was the name YHWH.

“-merciful-” He is God of mercy. Although the entire human race has broken his law, he does not punish us as we deserve. He knows we are frail (Psalms 103:14).

“-and gracious-” He is God of grace. We deserve nothing, have no redeeming qualities, but he generously gives us what we do not deserve.

“-longsuffering-” God is patient. He is not a Greek god prone to human rages. Some people might not like the fact that he gets angry at all. God would be lying if he did not include this portion of his character in the passage. His anger is not like ours. His is founded on reason and perfect control. Human anger is ineffectual and unsatisfying. God’s anger is slow to rise, corrects, and once serves its purpose passes. He does not have to “pound” sinners again and again. He doesn’t have to take vengeance twice (Nahum 1:9 RSV).

“-abundant in goodness and truth-” God’s love and faithfulness is unchanging, constant and overflowing. Humans can love and hate alternately from instant to instant. God is not like us. He may grow angry, but he does not hate people. He hates evil.

“-keeping mercy for thousands-” God’s love is not just a feeling within himself. It is an active love that comes out to the entire human race (John 3:16). The next few words shows how his love and faithfulness works.

“-forgiving iniquity, and transgression and sin-” God forgives all. We might be merciful and spare our enemies. We could even be gracious and generous towards them, but our hearts would always remember past wrongs. Our actions would be coloured by this. An omniscient God cannot forget, but he does forgive, and his treatment of past wrongs is as if they did not exist. When he forgives, he forgives completely. Our forgiveness and love wears out or is sorely tried when they are tested. God’s forgiveness and love is steadfast.

God’s forgiveness is all-encompassing. Iniquity, transgression and sin are different things in the Hebrew. Iniquity1 means perversity or moral evil. This is the fallen nature of any human, the tendency to do evil, or wrong either through the inability to discern the right, or to deliberately ignore the right. This is our failing nature. It is not the sin (the deed) itself. We have desperately wicked and deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). God can forgive this fundamental character flaw.

The Hebrew word for sin2 means an offense, the penalty for it, or the consequence. This is the deed itself. It carries within itself the seeds of its own punishment. Each sin, each wrong we do builds up in our lives. The culmination of sin is death. A person may unwittingly do something wrong, but it still remains wrong. God can forgive this.

Transgression3 is deliberate revolt (natural, moral or religious). This is a matter of human will, direct and willful disregard for God and his law. Iniquity is the tendency to do wrong while sin is the wrong itself. Iniquity is always there because of human imperfection. Sin can be accidental. Transgression is defiant disobedience. When we repent, God can forgive this as well.

The Part We Don’t Like To Know

No details are given of how God forgives, or how a holy God clears us of lawful punishment. (That is in the rest of the Bible.) One important item must be remembered:

Exodus 20:4-6 states that God will punish those who hate him. His love is for those who love him and keep his commands. The consequences of forgetting this can be seen below.

“-and that will by no means clear the guilty-” What’s this you ask. If God forgives, can there still be guilt and punishment? Is this a contradiction? If God was all forgiveness he would be a lopsided God, a grandfather who overlooked every wrong, a parent who allowed us to get away with anything. There would be no justice. Victims would never be vindicated. God gives us a direct warning he will punish sinners. The first part of the passage spoke of love. Love includes protection and correction. If we insist on hurting each other, God will put a stop to it, either by correction or by punishment.

Above all God is sovereign and omnipotent. He does what he wills. This is a reflection of Exodus 33:19: “and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.” This is not a contradiction of his love. He has made full provision for our failings, and yet there will remain many who must be punished. Why? It can only be that many will abuse or ignore God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is for correction, a second chance to do better. We cannot ask God to forgive our crimes and expect to commit more of them. God has no choice but to render judgement if someone insists on doing evil. He is holy, perfect and righteous. He is also maker and judge. To ignore this fact is to ignore this verse which he specifically highlighted to tell us about his character.

If we do not accept this, we reject the entire idea of a holy God who loves doing right (Jeremiah 9:23). If we do not love doing right as he does, we do not love him. If we cherish our sins, we do not love him and are not his children. If we are not his children we do not have his love. We do not have his forgiveness. We are judged guilty and open to punishment.

“-visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” The passage closes with God’s love and mercy. Sin and transgression are not imputed to the children. God is a God of justice. He will not punish us for what our ancestors did. Only iniquity, the sin nature, the tendency to do wrong, the failure to recognize and act on the right is carried by the children. And even here God exercises mercy. The fallen nature is limited to the third and at most the fourth generation. It will not get worse. Our specific spiritual mistakes will not haunt our children.

From Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance Of The Bible.

  1. Iniquity (word #5771): perversity (moral evil), fault, iniquity, mischief, sin, punishment of iniquity.
  2. Sin (word #2402): an offence and the penalty or sacrifice for it.
  3. Transgression (word #6588): a revolt (national, moral, or religious), to break way (from just authority), trespass, apostatize, quarrel.

Copyright© 2000, Jerry Chin