Relearning who God is
Theology | How God’s description of himself upends our expectations
by Dane Ortlund
Posted 2/08/21, 02:18 pm
What do you think of when you think of God’s glory? It’s one of the questions Dane Ortlund poses in Gentle and Lowly—WORLD’s 2020 Book of the Year in the accessible theology category. The title of Ortlund’s book references the only description Jesus offers of His own heart in the New Testament: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Ortlund reminds readers: “You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come.” In the excerpt below, Ortlund also delves into an Old Testament passage that shows God describing Himself. God says many things about His identity in the Old Testament, but during a pivotal encounter with Moses in Exodus 34, God begins by saying that He is “merciful and gracious.” These are the first words God uses after revealing His name is “I AM.”
“When God himself sets the terms of what His glory is, he surprises us into wonder,” Ortlund says. “The bent of God’s heart is mercy. His glory is His goodness.” Those are welcome reminders for all who are weary and heavy laden, particularly after a wearisome and heavy year. It’s refreshing to be surprised into wonder. —Jamie Dean
Who is God?
If we could pick only one passage from the Old Testament to answer that question, it would be hard to improve upon Exodus 34. God is revealing himself to Moses, causing his glory to pass by Moses, whom God has put in a cleft in the rock (33:22). At the critical moment we read:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:6–7)
Short of the incarnation itself, this is perhaps the high point of divine revelation in all the Bible. One objective way to demonstrate that point is how often this text is picked up elsewhere in the Old Testament. Time and again the prophets who followed Moses draw on these two verses from Exodus to affirm who God is. One of these occurs in the immediate context of the verse we have just considered, Lamentations 3:33. In the previous verse of that passage, God is described as having “compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (3:32), and the author uses several of the key Hebrew words underlying the revelation of Exodus 34:6–7. Many other texts likewise echo Exodus 34, including Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; 13:22; Psalms 5:8; 69:14; 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; Isaiah 63:7; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; and Nahum 1:3.
Exodus 34:6–7 is not a one-off descriptor, a peripheral passing comment. In this text we climb into the very center of who God is. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann gives this text special attention in his Theology of the Old Testament, calling it “an exceedingly important, stylized, quite self-conscious characterization of Yahweh, a formulation so studied that it may be reckoned to be something of a classic normative statement to which Israel regularly returned, meriting the label ‘credo.’”1
What then is Israel’s “credo” about who God is? Not what we would expect.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the glory of God”? Do you picture the immense size of the universe? A thundering, terrifying voice from the clouds?
In Exodus 33 Moses asks God, “Please show me your glory” (33:18). How does God respond? “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (33:19). Goodness? Isn’t the glory of God a matter of his greatness, not his goodness? Apparently not. God then goes on to speak of showing mercy and grace to whomever he wills (33:19). He then tells Moses that he will place him in the cleft of the rock and that (once again) his glory will pass by (33:22). And the Lord does pass by and yet (once again) defines his glory in 34:6–7 as a matter of mercy and grace:
… merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
When we speak of God’s glory, we are speaking of who God is, what he is like, his distinctive resplendence, what makes God God. And when God himself sets the terms on what his glory is, he surprises us into wonder. Our deepest instincts expect him to be thundering, gavel swinging, judgment relishing. We expect the bent of God’s heart to be retribution to our waywardness. And then Exodus 34 taps us on the shoulder and stops us in our tracks. The bent of God’s heart is mercy. His glory is his goodness. His glory is his lowliness. “Great is the glory of the Lord. For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly” (Ps. 138:5–6).
Consider the words of Exodus 34:6–7.
“Merciful and gracious.” These are the first words out of God’s own mouth after proclaiming his name (“the Lord,” or “I am”). The first words. The only two words Jesus will use to describe his own heart are gentle and lowly (Matt. 11:29). And the first two words God uses to describe who he is are merciful and gracious. God does not reveal his glory as, “The Lord, the Lord, exacting and precise,” or, “The Lord, the Lord, tolerant and overlooking,” or, “The Lord, the Lord, disappointed and frustrated.” His highest priority and deepest delight and first reaction—his heart—is merciful and gracious. He gently accommodates himself to our terms rather than overwhelming us with his.
“Slow to anger.” The Hebrew phrase is literally “long of nostrils.” Picture an angry bull, pawing the ground, breathing loudly, nostrils flared. That would be, so to speak, “short-nosed.” But the Lord is long-nosed. He doesn’t have his finger on the trigger. It takes much accumulated provoking to draw out his ire. Unlike us, who are often emotional dams ready to break, God can put up with a lot. This is why the Old Testament speaks of God being “provoked to anger” by his people dozens of times (especially in Deuteronomy; 1–2 Kings; and Jeremiah). But not once are we told that God is “provoked to love” or “provoked to mercy.” His anger requires provocation; his mercy is pent up, ready to gush forth. We tend to think: divine anger is pent up, spring-loaded; divine mercy is slow to build. It’s just the opposite. Divine mercy is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick.2 (For fallen humans, we learn in the New Testament, this is reversed. We are to provoke one another to love, according to Hebrews 10:24.
Yahweh needs no provoking to love, only to anger. We need no provoking to anger, only to love. Once again, the Bible is one long attempt to deconstruct our natural vision of who God actually is.)
“Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This is covenant language. There is one Hebrew word underlying the English phrase “steadfast love.” It is the word hesed, which refers to God’s special commitment to the people with whom he has gladly bound himself in an unbreakable covenant bond. The word “faithfulness” gets at this too—he will never throw his hands up in the air, despite all the reasons his people give him to do so. He refuses even to entertain the notion of forsaking us who deserve to be, or of withdrawing his heart from us the way we do toward others who hurt us. Therefore he is not simply existing in large-hearted covenant commitment but abounding in it. His determined commitment to us never runs dry.
“Keeping steadfast love for thousands.” This could equally be translated “keeping steadfast love to a thousand generations,” as is explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 7:9: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” This does not mean that his goodness shuts off with generation number 1,001. It is God’s own way of saying: There is no termination date on my commitment to you. You can’t get rid of my grace to you. You can’t outrun my mercy. You can’t evade my goodness. My heart is set on you.
“Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” This closing element, though initially hard to hear, is vital—and, on reflection, fosters further comfort. Without it, all that has come before might be misunderstood as mere leniency. But God is not a softie. He is the one perfectly fair person in the universe. God is not mocked; we reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). Sin and guilt pass down from generation to generation. We see this all around us in the world. But notice what God says. His covenant love flows down to a thousand generations; but he visits generational sins to the third or fourth generation. Do you see the difference? Yes, our sins will be passed down to our children and grandchildren. But God’s goodness will be passed down in a way that inexorably swallows up all our sins. His mercies travel down a thousand generations, far eclipsing the third or fourth generation.
1. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 216.
2. I am grateful to Wade Urig for helping me see this.