They should have been consumed by fire, every last one of them. With their own eyes the people of Israel had just watched the Red Sea split in two, and had seen God gloriously save them from the Egyptian army in the greatest act of deliverance history had yet seen. Moses, the man of God, had left them to go up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. And while he was gone – but for a short time – the people “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” in immorality; they forsook the God who saved them, and began to worship the Golden Calf. God should have destroyed the people for their iniquity, but He did not. Moses interceded, and God allowed the people to live. In fact, He promised that He would go with them to the Promised Land. He was gracious to them, and treated them much better than they deserved.
When all of the dust from that incident had settled, Moses again stood before God, and he made this request in 33:18, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And God said that He would pass before him, but that no man could see His face and live, so He would put him in “the cleft of the rock” and from there see the back of His glory. As chapter 34 begins, the Bible tells us that Moses went back up on Mount Sinai, and stood in that place in the rock. And in verses 6-8 describes what happened:
“And the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.’ And Moses made haste to bow low towards the earth and worship.”
I. The Doctrine of Our Gracious God
In Exodus 33, Moses made the ambitious request that is the unconscious desire of every human heart: to experience the glory of God. Whether you realize it or not, the thing you long to see, to experience, is the glory of God. When you are looking for thrills, what you are really looking for is the thrill of beholding the awesome glory of God in His presence. When you read a book, or watch a movie, and long for the romance you see there, what you are really longing for is the glorious love you will experience in the presence of our God. When you see beauty, and are captivated by it, it is but a foretaste of how you will be so captivated by the presence of the glory of God in heaven that you will never take your eyes off of Him. Every longing, every desire, every thrill, everything you seek in this life is just a faint shadow of what you really long for more than anything else: the glory of the God who made you with an innate desire to know Him. C.S. Lewis wrote that the longing that we have for all these things on earth “are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” The reality is that what we are longing for is the glory of God. Moses realized what most of us do not: that the one thing he longed for more than anything else was to see the glory of God. And so in Exodus 33:18, he asked for that very thing: “Show me Your glory.”
As we read a few moments ago, God did indeed show him His glory – as much of it as he could handle in an earthbound, sinful body. God said, “No man can see My face and live”, and so He told Moses that He would hide him in a cleft of the rock. Many people believe point to a spot today in the mountain Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula. “Jebel Musa” in Arabic means “The Mountain of Moses.” Just beneath the summit of Jebel Musa, there is a little cave, just big enough for a man to inhabit. Many believe that this was the spot where God put Moses, and covered him, while His glory passed by. The Bible says in Exodus 34:6 that “The Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed …”.
What God proclaimed here is of utmost importance. He proclaimed His name: “YHWH”. We have said numerous times, when you see the word “LORD” in all caps, it is the very name of God, “Yahweh” – “I AM that I AM”; “Who was and is and is to come.” “Yahweh; Yahweh God.” He proclaimed His name. And what is YHWH like? These first words that come out of His mouth are vital to a proper understanding of God. We can speculate as to who God is, in philosophy, but here GOD HIMSELF tells us who HE is; His innate, most essential qualities. And what does He say that He is? What is it that reflects the glory of God? What is He more than anything else? “Compassionate, and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth …”. These words are quoted throughout the rest of the Bible – you will see them in the Law and the Psalms and the prophets and the New Testament. They are the heart of the very self-revelation of God to man. And what God tells us here is that more than anything else, He is a compassionate and gracious God.
As the great Hebrew scholars Keil & Delitzsch point out, all the words the Hebrew language contained are “crowded together” and used here to express the idea of God’s grace in its varied manifestations to us: “Compassionate”, “gracious”; “slow to anger”; “abounding in lovingkindness and truth”; “forgiving …”. The words pile upon each other to express the gracious nature of God towards us. As difficult as it is to express that in words (for which I will admit my utter inadequacy today!) let me attempt to sketch a faint outline of it:
— “Compassionate” is from the Hebrew “raham” (which is the same root as the word for “womb”). It describes the tender love of a mother for the child who came from her womb. So the Bible says that God has that compassionate, parent-type love for us.
— “Gracious” Hebrew word “Chanan” (our names “Hannah”, and “John” – and “Shawn” — come from it!). The root means “to bend, to be inclined” – it means to be inclined to help someone. One defines it: “an action from a superior to an inferior who has no real claim for gracious treatment.” (TWOT) And this word “gracious” is used more of God than of anyone else in the Bible. God is gracious to us; He is “inclined” to want to help us, and to be better to us than we deserve.
— “Slow to Anger”: that is, He is patient with us. As we have seen before in our study of agape love in I Corinthians 13, He has “a long fuse.”
— “Lovingkindness” is the Hebrew word, “chesed”: it is one of the most marvelous words in the Hebrew vocabulary. It means to be faithful, to be loyal, to show goodness and mercy – not because the object “deserves” it, but because the giver chooses to give it. Martin Luther translated with the German word for “grace.” Others believe it is the Old Testament expression of the “love” of God – NAS translates it “lovingkindness.” And, significantly, it says He is “ABOUNDING in lovingkindness.” There is no shortage of grace and love with God.
By piling these words one upon another, scripture exhausts vocabulary to express the lovingkindness and grace of God. In other words, it is not in the human language to fully describe the gracious nature of God. There are things for which words fail – and describing the gracious nature of God is certainly foremost among them. It is like the old song says:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the sky of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky”
But we do see the gracious nature of God towards us expressed all through scripture:
— Deut. 4:30-31 “When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the later days you will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice. For the Lord your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them.”
— II Chronicles 30:9 “For if you return to the Lord, your brothers and your sons will find compassion before those who led them captive and will return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him.”
— Psalm 103 expounds on the self-revelation of God in Exodus 34. It uses the very same words that God proclaimed to Moses, in :8 of that Psalm: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness.” Verse 10 says “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, or rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness towards those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” This great passage uses three different illustrations to describe God’s grace:
1) “as high as the heavens are above the earth” – how high are the heavens above the earth? They go on almost infinitely – the Bible says THAT is how great God’s chesed/grace towards you us!
2) “as far as the east is from the west” – east and west never meet! THAT is how far God puts away our sins from us when He forgives us! You will never meet them again!
3) “as a father has compassion on his children” – THAT is how God has compassion on YOU! He doesn’t feel towards you like a master to a slave, but as a Father to his child.
Psalm 103 is one of the greatest descriptions of the compassion and grace of God!
— Jonah 4. In fact, the gracious nature of God is such a part of His person, it caused Jonah chagrin – for he KNEW that God would exercise it towards his enemies, the Ninevites. In Jonah 4:2, when Jonah had finally gone to Nineveh and preached, and the people had repented, and God spared the city, Jonah says, that is why I fled to Nineveh, “For I knew that You are a ‘gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.’” He quotes this very self-revelation of God from Exodus 34, saying, I just KNEW You would forgive these horrible people; that’s why I didn’t want to go there. Jonah wasn’t afraid of the Ninevites; he was afraid that God was going to be who He is – “Our Gracious God” – towards them. This is just SUCH a part of His very nature to be gracious.
As much of God’s love and grace as we see in the Old Testament, we surely see it in the New:
— Ephesians tells the story of God’s grace and mercy towards us perhaps as well as anywhere else in scripture. Chapter 2 begins with our sad story: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived, in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” A pathetic and hopeless story! But then :4 begins with these words: “But God” – “being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the surpassing riches of His race in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The Bible says we were hopelessly and helplessly lost – “but God” loved us, and showed us His great mercy through Jesus Christ, and saved us by grace through faith. He is the gracious, compassionate God.
We see this taught on every page of the New Testament:
— Acts 14:3 calls the gospel: “The word of His grace” – for that is what it communicates to us: that our God is a gracious God.
— John 1:14 says that when Jesus came to earth, He came “full of grace and truth.”
— Hebrews 4:16 calls God’s throne “the throne of grace”. We saw last week that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of (His) throne – but His throne is the throne of grace!
— James 5:11 says, “You have … seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.”
— I Peter 5:10 calls God “the God of ALL grace.”
— John 3:16 famously says that God did all that He did because He “so loved the world”
— I John 4:8 “God is love.”
It was no accident that the first words God proclaimed of His character that day to Moses were that He was “compassionate, gracious. For our God is a gracious God!
II. Applications of the Gracious Nature of God
The gracious nature of God should give us confidence to call on Him to save us from our sins. He so loves us that He sent Jesus to die for our sins. He is gracious; He will save you if you will call upon Him.
A.W. Tozer, the pastor and theologian I have referenced a few times over the previous weeks, was what I would describe as an iconoclast – that is, he tore down the “religious idols” of his day. One of the things Tozer pointed out about religious practices in his day was that many people went to church and endlessly repeated and sang the phrase, “Kyrie eleison” – which in Latin means, “Lord have mercy.” Over and over this was spoken and sung: “Kyrie eleison, Christe Eleison ….” – but he said for many, perhaps most of those people, it was just a mournful refrain, a hope, a wish, with no belief that it would really happen – that God would really have mercy on THEM in their situation. Tozer exhorted people: do not starve outside of the banquet hall. Our God IS a gracious God! He is a God who WILL show mercy to the one who has faith in Jesus! Come to Him with faith that He will do what He says in His word, and He WILL pour out His grace on you, have mercy on you, and save you – today!
But listen: if you do not – as we saw last week – there is no other way of salvation. In Exodus 34, God proclaimed His compassion and grace and patience and love first of all – but when you get past those, His justice is inevitably there as well. As much as it says about how “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger”, etc. that He is, when He has finished speaking of these qualities of His grace, He still says: “YET He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished …”. As we saw last week, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of (His) throne.” He CANNOT just pass over your sins, if you do not receive His compassion and grace in Christ Jesus. If you sit here week after week and reject His love and mercy and grace, you WILL find His judgment.
So take hold on His promises today; ask Him to have mercy on YOU, TODAY! Pray the prayer of David in Psalm 51: “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Thy compassion, blot out my transgressions.” Pray the prayer of the tax collector in Luke: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” Claim the promise of His word: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” If you will call on His mercy and grace for forgiveness, He will save you – for our God is a gracious God!
B. GOD’S DEALINGS WITH US
When God revealed His glory to Moses, it was not something that Moses had “earned.” God said, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious …”. God chose to be gracious to Moses, and show him His glory. And God is gracious to us in similar ways. He gives us many gifts in life that we do not deserve. We need to remember that our walk with God is based on His grace, not on our works.
There is some concern that not many of us really understand this on a daily basis. The great theologian J.I Packer wrote in his book Knowing God that most people in our churches really don’t seem to have a grip on the fact that God will deal with them by grace. He said, talk to them about the church budget, or the heat and air conditioning, and people will converse with you intelligently. But, he said, talk about the basics of God dealing with us by grace, and most will give you blank stare.
I have to join him at least somewhat in that assessment because I think there is evidence that most of operate with God in a “works” mindset – that somehow if we are good enough, that we will “earn” certain favors with Him. It’s hard to overcome, because we have been brought up that way: from “be good and Santa will bring you presents”, to behave in class and you will get a piece of candy – and on down the line. We have been brought up to think of works as earning favor and reward. Although there is some utility in that for our earthly relationships, unfortunately, that same mindset has carried over into our relationship with God. We think:
— if we are holy enough, then God will hear our prayers
— if we have our quiet time in the morning, then God will bless us during the day
— if we do all the right things, then our kids will turn out all right
— if we cleanse ourselves from sin, then God will send a revival
Now do not be mistaken: God wants us to do all of those things. But what we have to be careful of is thinking that if we do all of those things, then we have in a sense “earned” what we get from God. That is NEVER the case! Everything God gives us is of His grace.
— every prayer He answers is of His grace
— every blessing He gives is of His grace
We do not deserve ANYTHING from God; everything we have from Him is of His grace. If we got what we deserved, we wouldn’t even BE here. And God gives us many things that we absolutely just do not deserve. We need to strengthen our faith in the grace of God, and ask Him for those things that we just flat out know that we do not deserve! He is a gracious God!
An example of this is found in Genesis, after the angels had basically dragged Lot out of Sodom. They told him to flee to the mountains and he would be safe from the wrath that was about to fall. And how did Lot respond? He said that was too far — could he just go to the nearby town of Zoar instead? Are you kidding me? (This may be where they got the word “hutzpah” from!) Here God was, sparing him from the fire and brimstone, after he had been so compromised in Sodom, and he is asking God if he flee to a closer location! Unbelievable! (I think I would have probably let him burn!) But what was God’s response? He let him do it! It was far better than Lot deserved — but that is just the point: our God is a gracious God. He does indeed treat us better than we deserve.
God’s gracious nature should be an encouragement to some of you today. Perhaps you are saying inwardly, well, I have messed up, I know that all I deserve from God is punishment from Him. And in a very real sense, you are right; you have, and you don’t. But the good news is, we have a Gracious God, who so often treats us better than we deserve to be treated. Have faith in that – rather have faith in HIM – that He will be gracious to you, and will treat you better than you deserve to be treated.
I like Christian financial planner Dave Ramsey’s stock answer when people ask him how he’s doing. He always says; “Better than I deserve”. We can all say that – because God is “Our Gracious God”!
C. OUR DEALINGS WITH OTHERS
Mercy and compassion and grace are essential expressions of God’s character. They are how He treats US – and that is how He expects US, as His people, to treat others!
Zechariah 7:9: “Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother …”. God commands us to treat others the way that we have been treated by Him.
If you have really “seen the face of God” like Moses did: if you have seen that He is “compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness” – then you are going to show that face that you have seen – to others. YOU will be compassionate; YOU will be gracious; YOU will be slow to anger; YOU will be abundant in lovingkindness; YOU will show justice and wrath ONLY when these qualities have been rejected by those to whom we have made every attempt to be gracious, just like your Lord has done to you.
In Southeast Asia there is a woman by the name of Liang. Her husband had become a Christian, and went with two other believers to share his faith with an unreached people group in another village. But the people beat the two men who went with him, and Liang’s husband was killed. Her church decided to send the two men back again – and Liang said she was going to go with them. They went to the market place in the village to share the gospel, and again an angry group formed. But this time, Liang stepped forward. She said: “I am the widow of the man you killed just three weeks ago. But my husband is not dead – God has given him eternal life. My husband came here to tell you how you could have that same eternal life. If he were here, he would forgive you for what you did.” And she said, “I forgive you as well. I can forgive you, because God has forgiven me.” That night, a different crowd formed – to hear the gospel from Liang and the two evangelists. And many of those same people who killed her husband came to know the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
No one doubts that Liang had really experienced God’s grace – because she showed that grace that she received, to others – even to those who killed her own husband. One of the biggest giveaways that someone is just “religious”, and does not really know the Lord, is that they are ungracious, or unforgiving or uncaring towards others. A person whose heart has been touched by God’s love and grace will show that same grace to others. You can go to church every day of the week, but if you are ungracious to others; if you are unforgiving; if you don’t care about the needs of others – you can count on it: you have never experienced God’s grace. If you had, you would show that same grace to others like Liang did.
If you really believe in the grace of God, it will impact your dealings with others. This may answer some questions for some of you today. Some of you are wrestling with how you should deal with someone in a very specific situation. Although I do not know exactly what your situation is, this principle gives you a basic answer for it. The fundamental answer is simple: how would God treat YOU in this situation? How HAS He treated you? With kindness, compassion, and grace. That is exactly how you are to treat that person you are thinking about. Treat them with the same compassion and grace with which God has treated you.
Quite honestly, a lot of us would have to admit that we have really missed the boat here. We have wanted God’s face of love and grace and mercy for ourselves – but have turned a harsh and judgmental face towards others. We have seen that God’s “first face” towards us is compassion and grace – and that is the “first face” that we should show to others as well. In fact, that is the BEST way to know that someone really knows Him. If you have really experienced God’s grace, then you will be very ready to show to others, what you have received from God – His grace! For Our God Is a Gracious God!