Three thousand years ago at Mt Sinai, the God of Israel had been highly insulted! After all He had done for Israel; the great signs and wonders He had displayed before their eyes as clear evidence that He alone was God, they made a golden calf and ascribed the power that brought them out of Egypt, to it. The golden calf was only an expression of what was really in their hearts. They had despised the only true and living God and sought the ways of Egypt, the place that God regarded as a land of darkness.
God now had nothing in common with Israel. He refused to go with the nation, because if He did, He would certainly destroy them. So the pillar of fire and cloud would depart and another angel would be sent to fulfil His purpose. Israel was commanded to mourn and so they did.
It was these circumstances that eventually led to the proclamation of the Name of the LORD. Moses sought to intercede on behalf of Israel. He protested to the LORD that, although He had told him that he knew him by name, which meant that He was his friend, He had kept an important secret from him. Moses wanted to understand God’s thinking over this issue more perfectly, so he pleaded, “show me now Your way, that I may know You”. In other words, he also wanted to know Yahweh by name. He wished to know what it would take for God to “consider that this nation is Your people” (Ex. 33:13) again.
The LORD responded, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest”. Moses now had the answer. God would consider Israel as His people for Moses’ sake, “for you have found favor in my sight and I know you by name”. Moses felt how close he was to God. His great Friend was responding to his requests for a more intimate relationship. He sought to come closer. “I beseech you, show me your glory”. Moses could not behold the physical glory of God, but he could still have his request granted. He would know Yahweh by name. He would hear “the Name of Yahweh” proclaimed and learn that the glory of God was his “goodness”.
Our purpose here is to explore the first three characteristics given in the proclamation of God’s Name.
“Merciful, gracious, longsuffering” are three Hebrew words that appear a number of times in the same verse throughout the Old Testament, so we will consider them as a threesome. But first we need to accurately understand their individual meaning.
The Hebrew word translated “merciful” is rachuwn and means “mercy, compassion”. The idea is illustrated by the tender feelings of a father for his children. So the Psalmist, in a psalm that is really a commentary on the events of Exodus 32-34 (eg. v7-8) says, “Like as a father pities his children, so the LORD pities them that fear Him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psa. 103:12-13). Again, speaking of God’s relationship with Israel in the wilderness, the psalmist records, “But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passes away, and comes not again. How often did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert! (Psa. 78:38-40). So this word speaks of the understanding and tender feelings of pity we should have for the difficulties of others, even though we, like God himself, may never have experienced them ourselves. It does not blind us to the abhorrence of sin. It does not prevent us from dealing with it. But to enter into another’s soul and feel with them what they have experienced in their weakness and so to understand their behaviour, is the meaning of “merciful”.
The Hebrew word is channuwn and describes one who loves to show favour and kindness to others. It speaks of the generosity of God toward man. He doesn’t delight in the destruction of the wicked. He finds no satisfaction in bringing misery and suffering upon humanity. He much prefers to shower us with good things, as any parents who love their children will know. He owns all things and yet only gives us what is good for us, because He is favourably disposed toward us. He is not one to hold a grudge. He cannot do it because it is not in His nature. So when a pitiful man, or nation, wallowing in sin, unable to rise above himself, frankly acknowledges this before God and earnestly seeks His help, “rending his heart and not his garments”, God is moved by that. Like the father who saw his lost son a great way off, He runs to meet him, rejoicing in his restoration. As with the Father, so it is with all the heavenly community. “There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents”. Those who claim to be children of God must learn to be like their Father (Matt. 5:44-48). We need to be generously disposed toward others, seeking their welfare, allowing for their failures, encouraging rather than criticising and complaining, trusting rather than suspicious, preferring to see good in them rather than evil. This is not ignoring evil, but it is the meaning of “gracious”.
This expression is made up of two Hebrew words, arek = “slow” and aph = “anger”. Hence, “slow to anger”. God is not easily irritated. The former two characteristics lead Him to lengthen out the offers of His mercy rather than punish immediately, and wait to be gracious rather than to destroy. So “the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared”. Under these conditions, when judgement finally comes it is perfectly considered and just.
God gives every opportunity for man to repent. He provides his prophets according to Jeremiah’s characteristic expression, “rising up early and sending them”. He warns continually of impending judgement and rests not until there is no remedy. When the situation finally reaches a point where it can be said, “can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may you also do good, that are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23) the longsuffering of God reaches an end. God works with people, rebuking and chastening them, looking for repentance, for growth, until it becomes evident that they have reached a point where sin has become so habitual that they cannot change. Then He destroys them.
It was like this for the world in Noah’s time, the Canaanites in Joshua’s time, the men of Judah in Jeremiah’s days and the Jews in Jerusalem surrounded by Rome. It will also be the state of some parts of the world when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to “tread the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God”.
It is precisely because God is “slow to anger” that men imagine He will never intervene and so they become hardened in ignorance and sin. When they boast of God’s “slackness concerning His promise” (2 Pet. 3:9) they only prove how unlike Him they really are. If God could be made in their image, such a god would have destroyed them long ago. But He is not like man. We must learn to become like Him, even in the face of insult, slander and misrepresentation, for He endures all these things and waits patiently for better things. The lesson is there for us: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Merciful, Gracious and Longsuffering
Our final consideration is to observe that these three characteristics proclaimed to Moses are often used as a “threesome” in the Scriptures. Invariably, the context is a recounting of God’s dealings with stiff necked Israel. Consider these passages:
Nehemiah 10 recounts the history of God’s dealings with wayward Israel. In verses 16-17 the Levites remember the incident of the golden calf:
“But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to your commandments, and refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that you did among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but you are a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsook them not.”
Psalm 103 is built around the events of Exodus 32-34. It overflows with gratitude for the forgiveness of God for “iniquity, transgression and sin”. In verses 7-12 the Psalmist recalls the intercession of Moses:
“He made known his ways to Moses [proclaiming His Name], his acts unto the children of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever. He has not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
The psalm expounds the characteristics of “merciful” – a Father who pities His children, knowing our frame; of “gracious” generosity – “who satisfies your mouth with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” – and “slow to anger” – “He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger forever”.
Joel 2 records a terrible time in Judah’s history, when all the curses of the covenant had fallen upon the guilty nation. Drought, locust plague and a mighty northern invader had come upon the land. This was the LORD’s army He had sent against them. But even as they hammered upon the city to destroy it, the prophet was offering dramatic Divine intervention if only they would repent. In chapter 2:13 he says
“And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repents him of the evil.”
Even at that late stage, if Judah showed genuine repentance, God would “do great things” for them. Why? Because His natural characteristics disposed Him to do them good, not evil. The day will come when the northern army will come again and “in those days and at that time” (Joel 3:1) they WILL repent and He WILL save them.
The Divine characteristics of mercy, graciousness and slowness to anger do not prevent God from punishing the wicked. But in all His judgement He is yearning for an opportunity to show kindness. Yet He will not, cannot, until genuine repentance is evident, because this is the only way that really benefits anybody. He relents from the full fury of his wrath again and again until there is no remedy. “Why should you be stricken any more? You will revolt more and more” was Isaiah’s observation of Judah (1:5). What else could now be done, but send the Assyrian to destroy them like Sodom and Gomorrah, except for a very small remnant (v9).
The day is coming when those who have walked with God in their generations will rule the world with “the powers of the age to come”. God will entrust them with the power to heal and save, or afflict and destroy, because they have learned from Him how to use it. Even in wrath, He will remember mercy. The disposition of those who “inherit all things” will not be to destroy indiscriminately, but to look for opportunities to show mercy, to teach, to heal, to inspire faith and to bless.
They will be “gracious, merciful, longsuffering”.