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All of God’s words are equally inspired and authoritative (2 Tim. 3:16), but some passages are quoted or alluded to more often than others. They are revisited later in Scripture and thus serve as structural pillars for our theology and as guidelines for our lives.
Exodus 34:6–7 is such a passage. It’s quoted or alluded to in Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2; and Nahum 1:3. There must be something here worthy of repeated reflection. In this theologically rich chapter, God reveals himself to Moses and to us with these self-selected words:
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.
This text highlights a tension we need to observe, feel, and ponder—a tension that should spark a longing for resolution. It serves as one of the unifying threads of the Old Testament tapestry. And once we see this tension in Exodus 34:6–7, we can recognize it in dozens of other portions of Scripture and grow in appreciation for how the gospel, and only the gospel, brings resolution, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
Identify the Tension
To state the tension succinctly, God is both holy and loving. At first glance, this seems obvious and unproblematic. But further consideration prompts a conundrum. How can God be the kind of deity who punishes sin (to the third and fourth generation, no less) and one who abounds in lovingkindness? If he consistently punishes sin, then “O LORD, who can stand?” (Ps. 130:3). On the other hand, if he abounds in love, why would he punish people?
This text highlights a tension that should spark a longing for resolution.
Wrestling with this tension doesn’t just help us understand the Scriptures better; it also helps us grow in appreciation for the finished work of the cross. We behold God’s compassion and grace on the one hand, and his wrath and punishment on the other. He is “compassionate” and “gracious,” full of “faithfulness” and “love.” And yet he is too righteous to overlook “wickedness, rebellion, and sin.”
Understand the Tension
On the Jewish understanding of God’s nature, historian Tom Holland observes:
Jews who pondered the evidence of their scriptures never doubted that he was a deity with whom it was possible to have a profoundly personal relationship; but the key to his identity, vivid though it was, lay in its manifold contradictions. A warrior, who in his wrath might panic armies, annihilate cities, and command the slaughter of entire peoples, he also raised the poor from the dust and the needy from dungheaps.
Doesn’t this make sense? Don’t we, even in our mere humanity and fallenness, see the reasonableness of both loving acceptance and holy justice? Don’t we find deep within ourselves a cry for love as well as a demand for righting wrongs? If we sense a tension between some of God’s attributes, we also see something similar within our souls. Sometimes, I’m a nice guy; other times, I’m a mean jerk. At some points, I reflect the image of God clearly. Moments later, I need a flood of forgiveness.
How Jesus Resolves the Tension
How marvelous that God’s Word leads us to this glorious resolution when we learn that God is angry at sin but also merciful, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). He demands payment for sin but he also provides payment for sin. Jesus’s death on the cross satisfies both God’s equity and his love, his holiness and his compassion, his righteous standard of holiness and his righteous showering of lovingkindness.
Don’t we find deep within ourselves a cry for love as well as a demand for righting wrongs?
Perhaps this is what Isaac Watts was expressing in “When I Survey the Wonderous Cross,” where he saw “sorrow and love flow mingled down”—sorrow at the need for atonement, love for what atonement accomplished. Maybe this was part of Simeon’s relief at seeing the baby Messiah: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:29–31).
No wonder John declared that God is “faithful and just” to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9). On the cross we see the resolution of all those pairings of God’s expressions of love and declarations of punishment—as in Exodus 34.
Helping Lost People Feel the Tension
A rich appreciation for how the gospel resolves this tension can also lead to fruitful evangelistic conversations. We can help people feel a tension within their assumptions that echo themes in God’s Word. People have an innate sense of right and wrong and want justice to be done. They know it’s wrong for people to treat others in disrespectful, unkind, and abusive ways. They value kindness, mercy, and compassion. But, with gentle prodding, they can see how they fail to live up to their own expectations and demands.
Jesus’s death on the cross satisfies both God’s equity and his love, his holiness and his compassion.
All of us are a mix of goodness (because we’re created in the image of God) and ugliness (because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God). In other words, our preparation for gospel witness needs to help people feel uneasy before they find joy. They must feel perplexed before they can accept pardon.
Glory That Surpasses the Law
For all the glory Moses saw, he wasn’t allowed to see God’s face, for “man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). God’s glory revealed in the law was incomplete—it contained an unresolved tension, which is why the glory revealed in the gospel far surpasses it (2 Cor. 3:7–18).
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”—the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (John 1:14; 2 Cor. 4:6). And that’s something Moses could never say.