Recently, I was brought up short — again — by the words of God in Hosea 6:6:
For I desire steadfast love [Hebrew hesed] and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. (RSV)
Here God is a wounded Husband, His hands heavy with unrequited love: “For your [wavering] love and kindness [again, hesed] are as the night mist or as the dew that goes early away” (6:4, Amplified). His anguish waves an accusing finger, as He points out that our hesed is not hesed at all. Our hearts are not steadfast, but fickle as melting mist. Through Isaiah (40:6) He puts it a little differently: all the hesed of men is like grass, quick to spring up and quicker still to wither away.
I keep getting it wrong, on both counts. I decide that God is all about sacrifice — that our relationship is one of awkward distance, punctuated on either side by occasional costly actions. Or I ease myself into the warm bath of thinking that God is Unconditional Love, which essentially hands me a Get Out of Jail Free card; it means that what He desires and expects from me is . . . nothing.
What then is the hesed of God? And how does it take root in me?
The Nature of God’s Love
Hesed appears in our English Bibles as loving-kindness, steadfast or unfailing love, mercy, kindness, favor, goodness, pity, loyalty. One lexicon cites authorities who find its “primary meaning in eager zeal or desire” (1); another concludes, “Its semantic core is best expressed by ‘devotion’” (2); elsewhere it is summarized as “befriending.” (3) Perhaps the most helpful suggestion is that we need three English concepts — love, strength, and steadfastness — to do justice to the richness of this word. (4)
Hesed is committed love, pledged within a covenant, and expecting a return. The Lord is good [tob] to all, and His mercy or compassion [rahamim] extends to all creation (Psalm 145:9), but His hesed — and its attendant blessings of provision, protection, redemption — are for those who fear and obey Him. The Lord’s “unfailing love” for His people may be shown through His destroying their enemies, who are not His people (Psalm 143:12). So this love, though fierce, is embattled. The earth is filled with the Lord’s hesed (Psalm 33:5; 119:64), yet the faithful can fear that it has vanished utterly (Psalm 77:8; 89:49). At least at times, it can be said that men of hesed are extinct (Micah 7:2), or that God has taken them away in order to spare them (Isaiah 57:1).
When we simply say “love” or “mercy,” we miss all that God puts into the relationship. Rather, we are invited to ponder or meditate on the Lord’s hesed (Psalm 48:9); the wise consider it and seek to understand it (Psalm 107:43). We are enjoined to bind it round our necks and write it on our hearts, so as never to forget it (Proverbs 3:3); it is the very sign of the covenant, like a marriage ring given us by God. It is marvelous or wonderful (Psalm 17:7), “precious” beyond all reckoning (Psalm 36:7). We are to tell of it (Isaiah 63:7), proclaim it through song (Psalm 92:1-2), respond to it with thanks and praise (Psalm 31:21; 107:8, 15, 21, 31). Certainly we are not expected to tire of it, take it for granted, or (like Israel, Psalm 106:7) forget it.
The chief characteristic of the Lord’s hesed is that it does not fade like the fickle devotion of men; it is no short-lived mist or blade of grass. This is so much the case that, in the frequent refrain “His hesed [endures] forever,” (5) the verb is understood: enduring, remaining steadfast and unfailing, is what hesed does. Everything the Lord does expresses hesed toward His own, as the refrain in Psalm 136 underscores: creation and its maintenance, the Exodus and the Conquest, the destruction of Pharaoh and the kings of Canaan. The hesed of God surrounds His people (Psalm 32:10), rests upon them and crowns them (Psalm 33:22; 103:4), supports and sustains them (Psalm 94:18) like the “everlasting arms” described by Moses (Deuteronomy 33:27). It is a guardian, appointed by God as a constant protector (Psalm 23:6; 40:11; 57:3; 61:7); we can put our trust in His “unfailing love” (Psalm 13:5; 52:8; 143:8), and also our hope (Psalm 33:18; 130:7; 147:11). The Lord’s hesed is “better than life” (Psalm 63:3) — richer, more satisfying, and more enduring.
At the same time, God’s faithful love is not simply permissive. Hesed can take the form of a corrective blow, a slap in the face (Psalm 141:5). The Lord does not spare Israel from exile, but He goes with them and shows them kindness and favor (Ezra 9:9): “Though the Lord brings grief, He will show compassion [raham], so great is His unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:32, NIV). Because His love or affection [ahabah] is everlasting, His hesed, like a rope, draws us where we don’t want to go (Jeremiah 31:3).
When we first encounter the Lord’s hesed in the Biblical narratives, it is set against the tit-for-tat loyalties of human hesed. Lot recognizes the divine loving-kindness, based on God’s covenant with Abraham, that has come to deliver him from Sodom (Genesis 19:19), and Jacob acknowledges that he is “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness [emet]” the Lord has shown him (32:10, RSV). Abraham asks Sarah to do him the “kindness” of telling a lie (20:13), but it is God’s loving-kindness that protects them both (compare 21:23). Joseph asks a fellow prisoner for the kindness of a good word (40:14); the man forgets, but the Lord never stops showing him loving-kindness, even when he is locked away and overlooked by people (39:21). God’s hesed is threatened, obscured, called into question, only to be revealed; as with Naomi, who changes her name from Pleasant to Bitter, and tells the town that the Almighty has dealt bitterly with her, only to realize with a start that the Lord “has not stopped showing His kindness” (Ruth 1:20, Amplified; 2:20, NIV).
Occasionally, hesed even has a transformative effect, rubbing off on the people of God. The Lord recalls a bridelike “devotion,” on Israel’s part, in the early days of the wilderness wanderings (Jeremiah 2:2). David extends “kindness” to Jonathan’s descendants, and even to those who honor Saul (2 Samuel 9:1; 2:4-6). During the long period of the divided monarchy, we think of the northern kings as a parade of rebels and idolaters, but among neighboring nations they apparently developed a reputation for being “merciful” (1 Kings 20:31). The earthen pot could not entirely conceal the glory of the Lord’s unfailing love.
Love and Other Divine Qualities
What lies back of hesed, and what accompanies it? When the Lord reveals Himself to Moses, He passes before him in glory [kabod], parades His goodness [tub], and proclaims His character:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful [rahum] and gracious [hannun], slow to anger [erek ap], and abounding [rab] in steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness [emet], keeping [nasar] steadfast love [hesed] for thousands, forgiving [nasa] iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear [naqah] the guilty, visiting [paqad] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” And Moses made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshiped. (Exodus 34:6-8, RSV)
This passage is a foundational revelation, echoed throughout the Old Testament. Moses appeals to these words in interceding for Israel (Numbers 14:18), and the psalmist in making a personal plea (Psalm 86:15); Nehemiah uses them to make sense of the nation’s history (9:17, 31). This picture of God also serves as a basis for praise (Psalm 103:7-18; 145:8). Because of it, Joel dares to hope for national pardon (2:13-14); and because of it, ironically, Jonah worries that the Lord won’t obliterate Nineveh (4:2). (6)
Here there is a procession, a piling up, and a clashing together of words fraught with meaning. Hesed appears twice; it gathers clarity and definition from all the other terms, as a quick review may show.
The first adjective the Lord employs in this description of Himself is a deeply emotional word. Rahum, compassionate or merciful, means being kind with the tender affection of a mother (Isaiah 49:15; 1 Kings 3:26), a father (Psalm 103:13), a brother (Genesis 43:30); it’s defined as “brotherly feeling, of those born from same womb.” (7) We learn from Scripture that this feeling in human families is only a pale reflection of the heart of God: “He has compassion [rahamim] on all He has made” (Psalm 145:9, NIV). Convicted of sin and presented with a choice of penalties, David declares, “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for His mercies [rahamim] are many and great; but let us not fall into the hands of men” (2 Samuel 24:14, Amplified). The King James Version sometimes translates rahamim as “tender mercies” (Psalm 25:6; 40:11; 51:1; 69:16; 77:9; 79:8; 103:4; 119:77, 156; 145:9; Proverbs 12:10), but on several occasions renders the word by saying that the Lord is “full of compassion” (Psalm 78:38; 86:15; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8).
This mercy or compassion is one of the great wellsprings of God’s heart: “our God is merciful” (Psalm 116:5). Even when He is justly angry with His son Ephraim or Israel, “My heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him” (Jeremiah 31:20, NIV). John Bright comments that the Lord “cannot utter his name without being filled with longing for him.” (8) The Lord’s rahamim becomes the basis for hope in prayer: “We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18, NIV).
Rahamim often appears side by side with hesed. The Lord “crowns” His people “with love and compassion” (Psalm 103:4, NIV); He has dealt with them “according to His compassion and many kindnesses” (Isaiah 63:7, NIV), and He is asked still to remember His “great mercy and love . . . from of old” (Psalm 25:6, NIV).
Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of Your love [hesed];
in Your great mercy [rahamim] turn to me. (Psalm 69:16, NIV)
Here unfailing love and abundant mercy are equal motives prompting divine intervention.
At other times, when human sin has harmed the relationship, hesed seems to provide the sure basis for emotional reconciliation:
In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid My face from you,
but with everlasting love [hesed] I will have compassion [raham] on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer. . . .
For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but My steadfast love [hesed] shall not depart from you,
and My covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord who has compassion [raham] on you. (Isaiah 54:8, 10, RSV)
The steadfast love [hesed] of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies [rahamim] never come to an end; . . .
Though He cause grief, He will have compassion [raham]
according to the abundance of His steadfast love [hesed]; . . . (Lamentations 3:22, 32, RSV)
In Micah 7:18-19, God will again have compassion [raham] because He delights to show mercy [hesed].
Rahum calls to mind another emotional word often used of the Lord, though not in Exodus 34. Ahabah is love, “affection both pure & impure, divine & human.” (9) It comes naturally, and yet it is not easy for fallen humanity to direct or to sustain. We have many “lovers” (Ezekiel 16:32-37; Hosea 2:13; 8:9); we love evil (Micah 3:2; Psalm 52:3), detestable things (Hosea 9:10), and shameful ways (Hosea 4:18); so far from valuing constancy in our affections, we even love to wander (Jeremiah 14:10). So we must be enjoined to be watchful and attentive in our love to God (Joshua 23:11). The Lord must circumcise our hearts, surgically changing our inner beings, if we are to love Him faithfully (Deuteronomy 30:6).
This process is difficult; we must curb and cultivate our affections. Abraham must offer up the son he loves (Genesis 22:2); Israel must learn to love the neighbor, even the alien (Leviticus 19:18, 34). There is an element of holy fear in our love for God (Deuteronomy 10:12); only so shall we cleave or hold fast to Him (Deuteronomy 11:22; 30:20). Ahabah is not hesed; its hallmark isn’t constancy so much as strength; still, no futile or fleeting affection can equip us to love the Lord entirely, heart and soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5).
One time, indeed, God testifies:
I remember the devotion [hesed] of your youth,
your love [ahabah] as a bride,
how you followed Me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown. (Jeremiah 2:2, RSV)
Remarkably, this appears to be His recollection of the wilderness wanderings — when, at least intermittently, the people feared His voice (Deuteronomy 5:23-29). This would explain why He keeps taking them back there, commanding them to camp in booths (Leviticus 23:42-43; Nehemiah 8:14-17), alluring them and speaking to their heart (Hosea 2:14). But Israel’s “devotion” ends with the honeymoon; she never learns to “love [ahab] mercy [hesed]” (Micah 6:8).
With people, natural affection appears to be primary: because the king loves [ahab] Esther more than other women, she receives his grace [hen] and favor [hesed] (Esther 2:17). Often, it seems to work similarly with the Lord. His affection for Israel is simply there. It is a strong attachment (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 10:15); it persists even when the people are unfaithful (Hosea 3:1). Because of this love, He redeems and ransoms them (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:8; Isaiah 43:4; 63:9).
Yet there is a fundamental conflict. Naturally, the Lord loves [ahab] righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5; 37:28; 11:7; 99:4; Isaiah 61:8); therefore, He loves the righteous (Psalm 146:8) and those who pursue righteousness (Proverbs 15:9). He loves those who love Him (Proverbs 8: 17), and His covenant of hesed love is particularly for those who love [ahab] Him (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 5:10; 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4).
The Bible says remarkably little about God hating [sane], but it is clear that His hatred of wickedness (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9) and abominable idols (Deuteronomy 12:31; 16:22; Jeremiah 44:4) extends to people who are ruled by these things. His soul hates “the wicked and those who love [aheb] violence” (Psalm 11:5, NIV). “You hate all who do wrong” (Psalm 5:5, NIV). Most strikingly, of Israel:
I have forsaken My house,
I have abandoned My heritage;
I have given the beloved [yediduth] of My soul
into the hands of her enemies.
My heritage has become to Me
like a lion in the forest,
she has lifted up her voice against Me;
therefore I hate [sane] her. (Jeremiah 12:7-8, RSV)
Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal,
I hated [sane] them there.
Because of their sinful deeds,
I will drive them out of My house.
I will no longer love [ahab] them; . . . (Hosea 9:15, NIV)
The hatred is real and enduring; at times it eclipses ahabah and stifles rahamim. We shall return to the problem of a steadfast, unfailing hesed that, like a beating heart, reverberates even in the midst of hot jealousy and spurning anger.
Grace [hen] is an elusive concept. It is elegance, favor, acceptance; from one side yearning toward and seeking favor, and from the other inclining toward and showing favor. (10)
At least since B.B. Warfield, we have come to think of grace as “unmerited favor” — as “neither expected nor deserved.” (11) Jim McClure points out that ancient notions of grace often emphasize reciprocity, (12) and we may add that some passages speak of merit. When Bildad advises Job that his supplication [hanan] or plea to God for grace will be heard so long as he is pure and upright (Job 8:5-6), he is only echoing the psalmists, who ask for grace on the grounds of their integrity (Psalm 26:11), and who declare that the Lord always shows grace to those who love [aheb] His name (Psalm 119:132). Malachi 1:8-9 warns that God won’t be gracious to a people whose offerings are poor.
Working mostly with the New Testament, James Ryle has redefined grace as the empowering presence of God. Ryle makes the point that “unmerited favor” is practically synonymous with mercy, so that, if we accept Warfield’s definition, apostolic benedictions imparting “grace and mercy” (1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; 2 John 3) are redundant. Moreover, “unmerited favor” makes little sense in a number of passages, including a key Old Testament verse:
He mocks proud mockers
but gives grace to the humble. (Proverbs 3:34, NIV; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5)
Surely proud mockers need unmerited favor as least as desperately as the lowly and afflicted do. But it is the humble, the crushed, who are in a position to welcome His empowering presence. (13)
McClure finds “empowering presence” helpful in defining grace, but still too narrow. (14) Particularly in the Old Testament, he calls grace “a most inadequate word” to describe either hen or hesed. At the heart of both, he believes, “is the concept of a kindly disposition.” (15)
This is not very satisfactory. The God revealed in Scripture doesn’t stop at dispositions; as He is, so He acts. When He “remembers” or calls to mind, it isn’t simply so that He can think fond thoughts. Rather, He remembers Noah, and clears away the floodwaters (Genesis 8:1-3); He remembers Rachel, and intervenes to open her womb (Genesis 30:22). In the same way, He gives or releases or sends forth [natan] grace (Genesis 33:5, 11; Psalm 84:11; Proverbs 3:34). Even on a human level, we are gracious particularly when we give (Psalm 37:21, 26; 112:5; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 28:8; Daniel 4:27). So when human speech is called gracious (Psalm 45:2; Proverbs 22:11; Ecclesiastes 10:12), one suspects that it is not simply characterized by elegance but unleashed “for the cause of truth and to defend the right” (Psalm 45:4, RSV).
Though it is difficult to define, we instinctively recognize grace. William Barclay writes:
What the ancient world longed for, as Seneca said, was a hand let down to lift us up. And that is precisely what Grace is. It is the hand of God to lift us out of frustration into victory, out of helplessness into power, out of defeat into triumph. (16)
The outstretched hand is brought vividly to life when Esther goes before the king, her husband. Already, because of an affectionate attraction [ahabah], he has shown her grace [hen] and kindness [hesed] (Esther 2:17). Now, though she is so bold as to appear unbidden, she finds favor [hen] in his eyes — and the sign is that he extends to her the scepter in his hand (5:2), sparing her life (7:3; 8:3-6) and inviting her to draw near (5:2). So, too, Jacob the grasper wrestles with men and with God; he is still clasping the angel (Genesis 32:26) when he begs for grace (Hosea 12:3-4), and grace appears through more extended hands, the embrace of his wronged brother Esau (Genesis 33:4). These stories prefigure the New Testament hands of Jesus, touching a leper (Mark 1:41) and lifting up Peter (Matthew 14:31), and the loving embrace of the prodigal’s father (Luke 15:20).
Still, the great sign of grace is not a touch from God, but His continuous presence. Moses says as much just before and just after God’s great revelation that we are considering:
For how shall it be known that I have found favor [grace, hen] in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not in Thy going with us . . . ? (Exodus 33:16, RSV)
If now I have found favor [grace, hen] in Thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray Thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thy inheritance. (Exodus 34:9, RSV)
Repeatedly in Scripture, even on a human level, the sign of grace or favor is that you stay with me (Genesis 30:27; 1 Samuel 16:22). How much more we cry to God, “If I have found favor in Your eyes, my Lord, do not pass Your servant by” (Genesis 18:3, NIV). “Turn to me and be gracious to me” (Psalm 25:16, NIV; compare 119:132). “O Lord, be gracious to us; we long for You (Isaiah 33:2, NIV). David, fleeing from his son Absalom, refuses to take the ark of God with him out of Jerusalem, but acknowledges that his flight is also a banishment: “If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, He will bring me back and let me see it and His dwelling place again” (2 Samuel 15:25, NIV). The blessing “God be gracious” (Genesis 43:29; Numbers 6:25; Psalm 62:1) summarizes all blessings by inviting His presence.
The same verb hanan that describes the giving or showing of grace is also used to express the seeking for it: crying, begging, pleading, groaning. When the Lord promises to pour out “a spirit of grace [hen] and supplication [tahannunim]” (Zechariah 12:10), we see that He is already present, and grace is already present, in the crying out. Hunger itself is grace. This also helps us to understand why Proverbs 3:34 says that the Lord mocks the proud but gives grace to the humble: those who have received the grace of humiliation are already crying out and seeking. “Though the Lord is on high, He looks upon the lowly, but the proud (the haughty who are themselves lifted up on high) He knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6, NIV). The heroes of faith are people who have pleaded and groaned (Genesis 42:21; Deuteronomy 3:23; Esther 4:8; 8:31; Daniel 6:11) — as, in the New Testament, grace is displayed when Jesus cries out with and for us (Hebrews 5:7), the merciful father pleads with us (Luke 15:28), and the Spirit of God groans in us (Romans 8:26).
In Psalm 77:8-9, during a true dark night of the soul, the psalmist wonders whether the Lord’s steadfast love [hesed] has ceased, whether He has forgotten to be gracious [hanan], and whether He has stifled His compassion [rahamim]. Normally, though, the hope for grace, like that for mercy, is founded on the Lord’s committed and unfailing hesed love. The Lord is with Joseph in prison, and shows His hesed by granting him favor [hen] with the warden (Genesis 39:21). In Psalm 51:1, a fallen David cries to God to be gracious [hanan] “according to” His unfailing love [hesed] and the multitude or abundance [rob] of His mercies [rahamim]. Though he is brought low in the pit of humiliation, his faith rises boldly, grace asking for grace: “Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11, NIV).
Mercy [rahamim] is often joined with grace [hen] in the Old Testament, but grace almost always is named first. In the revelation of Exodus 34, the order is reversed. Perhaps the Lord wished to lead with His heart, with an assurance of deep and abiding attachment.
Slow to Anger
At first blush, God’s announcement that He is “slow to anger” [erek ap] comes as something of a surprise. Many readers of the Old Testament have concluded simply that He is angry, and have placed this characteristic first, ahead of “merciful” and “gracious.” There are a dozen Hebrew words for “anger,” and they trip over one another when God voices His anger against His own people:
I Myself will fight against you . . . in anger [ap], and in fury [hemah], and in great wrath [qatsaph]. (Jeremiah 21:5, RSV)
He let loose on them His fierce [haron] anger [ap], wrath [ebrah], indignation [zaam], and distress [tsarah], a company of destroying angels. (Psalm 78:49, RSV)
Scripture leaves no doubt as to the power of God’s anger. “Who can stand before You when You are angry?” (Psalm 76:7, NIV; Nahum 1:6; Revelation 6:17). The Lord’s indignation saps human health (Psalm 38:3). Even the godly wish to be hidden away till His anger has passed by (Job 14:13; Isaiah 26:20; compare Revelation 6:15-16). For His anger is “fierce” [haron]; it “burns” [harah] like an all-devouring wildfire (Deuteronomy 32:22; Jeremiah 21:12; Hebrews 10:27) or a furnace (Ezekiel 22:20-22; Psalm 21:9), at best subsiding to a continuous smolder (Psalm 74:1; 80:4). His anger is an earthquake that overturns mountains (Job 9:5; Psalm 18:7; Isaiah 13:13; Nahum 1:5), and a violent wind bringing hailstones and torrential rain (Ezekiel 13:13). It is floodwaters rising to engulf all flesh (Genesis 7:20-23), the charred and smoking devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:28; Deuteronomy 29:23-24), the step-by-step ruin of Egypt (Exodus 10:7), the casting away of the ten tribes (2 Kings 17:18), the ravaging of Jerusalem (Lamentations), and the agony of Jesus in His trial and crucifixion (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9).
The word for “anger” that appears in Exodus 34:6, ap, comes from a root that refers to the human nose. “Slow to anger” thus calls to mind the picture of a face, “long of nostril,” (17) not so very different from the British “stiff upper lip.” In contrast, “quick to anger” is “short of nostril,” snorting, flaring. This is the “face” the Lord sometimes shows, as at the Red Sea:
You unleashed Your burning anger; . . .
By the blast of Your nostrils
the waters piled up. . . .
You blew with Your breath,
and the sea covered them. (Exodus 15: 7, 8, 10, NIV)
A single breath, a slight twitch of His nose, and the wicked perish (Job 4:9; Psalm 18:8, 15; 2 Thessalonians 2:8).
Often, as we read, the divine nostrils seem to be quivering. Just after the incident of the golden calf, the Lord says to Moses, “Now leave Me alone so that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Exodus 32:10, NIV). We say with reason that He speaks in this way in order to call forth Moses’ love for his people and faith to intercede; nevertheless, decades later, Moses still sees it differently: “I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for He was angry enough with you to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 9:19, NIV; compare verse 8).
But the consistent testimony of Scripture is that the Lord restrains His anger, saving it as a last resort. When the psalmist warns, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for His wrath can flare up in a moment” (Psalm 2:12, NIV; “for His wrath is quickly kindled,” RSV), he is not describing a God who is quick-tempered and capricious. Rather, this is the “suddenly” of God, when, after much correction and many pleadings, all at once He acts. We see this, for example, when His anger burns against Moses only after He has patiently answered every objection to the prophet’s call, and Moses still asks Him to send someone else (Exodus 4:13-14). Though His great heart feels more than we can imagine (Genesis 6:6), He never yields to the emotion of the moment in such a way as to forget His great and gracious purposes. “For My own name’s sake I defer My wrath,” He declares (Isaiah 48:9, NIV). Though His own people repeatedly and continually “provoke” [kaas] Him to anger (2 Kings 17:11, 17; Isaiah 65:3; Ezekiel 8:17), from the Exodus to the Exile (2 Kings 21:15), still we read, “Time after time He restrained His anger and did not stir up His full wrath” (Psalm 78:38, NIV).
We see this in numerous ways. First, the Lord’s anger is just, a righteous and holy response to grievous sins. We see His anger burn because we break covenant with Him (Deuteronomy 31:16-17), forsake Him (Judges 2:12-13), and go our own way (Deuteronomy 29:19-20); because He is jealous (Deuteronomy 6:15), and must watch as we refuse His gracious invitation (Luke 14:21) and turn our hearts away (1 Kings 11:9) to idols (Numbers 25:3; Deuteronomy 7:4); because we suppress His truth (Romans 1:18) and reject His Son (John 3:36); because His good law serves only as a catalyst for our sin (Romans 4:15); because we are proud (2 Chronicles 32:25) and greedy (Isaiah 57:17), stubbornly unrepentant, and self-seeking (Romans 2:5, 8); because we greet His words with mockery and scoffing (2 Chronicles 36:16) and His works with ungrateful complaints (Numbers 11:1, 10). As if this were not enough, He is angry at our deeds and systems of injustice (Exodus 27:22-24), our hard hearts toward one another (Mark 3:5), our unforgiveness (Matthew 18:33-34) and insubordination (Romans 13:5) and deliberate efforts to block the extension of grace to those we despise (Mark 10:13-14). Because the Lord’s anger is wholly aligned with goodness, it brings Him praise (Psalm 76:10, NIV). There are fearful days of judgment when God not only clothes Himself with anger (Lamentations 3:43), but seems to be all anger, when His wrath sustains or upholds Him (Isaiah 63:5), when He is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29). But the brightness at the heart of the flame is not anger as we understand it, but purity and holiness.
Vast and powerful though it may be, the divine anger can be deposited within a human being. “I am full of the wrath of the Lord,” says the prophet; “I am weary of holding it in” (Jeremiah 6:11, RSV; compare 15:17) — and so he speaks it; he suffers, but isn’t consumed or driven mad (25:15-16). Shortly after Saul is made king, “the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger” (1 Samuel 11:6, NIV), yet he is later condemned for failing to carry out the Lord’s fierce wrath (28:18). Compared with the “controlling” or “compelling” love of Christ, which governs Paul’s entire life and perhaps carries him out of his mind (2 Corinthians 5:13-15), this anger is weak.
Consider, too, how long God’s anger continues. We are treated to different impressions on this point. The psalm attributed to Moses — the very man to whom it’s revealed that God is “slow to anger” — struggles to see any end or change:
We are consumed by Your anger
and terrified [RSV “overwhelmed”] by Your indignation. . . .
All our days pass away under Your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan [RSV “like a sigh”]. . . .
Who knows the power of Your anger?
For Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due You. . . .
Relent, O Lord! How long will it be? (Psalm 90:7-13, NIV)
Indeed, throughout the Old Testament, during the many bad times, the people of God cry out in a dismay that borders on despair:
Will You be angry with us forever?
Will You prolong Your anger through all generations? (Psalm 85:5, NIV; compare Jeremiah 3:5)
How long, O Lord? Will You be angry forever?
How long will Your jealousy burn like fire? (Psalm 79:5, NIV)
Yet the faithful also testify, “His anger lasts only a moment” (Psalm 30:5, NIV; compare Isaiah 54:8). The Lord Himself declares:
I will not accuse forever,
nor will I always be angry,
for then the spirit of man would grow faint before Me —
the breath of man that I have created. (Isaiah 57:16, NIV)
Here He sets a limit to His anger because He is conscious of our frailty. Then He goes on to acknowledge that angers fails to accomplish the deep purpose of His heart, which is to bring about repentance:
I was enraged by his sinful greed;
I punished him, and hid My face in anger,
yet he kept on in his willful ways. (Isaiah 57:17, NIV; compare 42:25; 1:5)
So He wields anger, above all, as a temporary measure. The Assyrians may serve as the rod of His anger against Israel (Isaiah 10:5), but “very soon” His wrath will not only come to an end, but turn against the instrument (10:25, NIV). It is because we are “created to be like God” (Ephesians 4:24, NIV) that Paul can urge us, “When angry, do not sin; do not ever let your wrath (your exasperation, your fury or indignation) last until the sun goes down” (4:26, Amplified; compare Psalm 4:4). For it is people, and not God, who are quick to wrath (Proverbs 12:16; 14:16-17; Ecclesiastes 7:9), and who allow our fierce anger to become a murderous rage that knows no bounds (Genesis 49:5-7; Amos 1:11; 2 Chronicles 28:9). With reason David asks to be spared the wrath of men, and instead to be given over into the hands of the Lord, “for His mercy is very great” (1 Chronicles 21:13, NIV, RSV). His is the love that “is not easily angered” (1 Corinthians 13:5, NIV).
A final point: The Lord demonstrates, again and again, that He is willing to turn from His anger. He turns from anger (or turns His anger away from people) when someone intercedes, reminding Him of His covenant promises (Exodus 32:11-14; Psalm 106:23, 29-30; Jeremiah 18:20) and His righteous acts (Daniel 9:16); or because of human humility and repentance (2 Chronicles 12:7, 12; Jonah 3:6-9); or when atonement is made (Numbers 16:46-48); or for the sake of the “holy buffer” of His consecrated people, their sanctuary, and their worship (Numbers 1:53; 18:5; 2 Chronicles 30:8); or because of a new or renewed covenant (2 Chronicles 29:10). Though one sinner can bring wrath upon the entire community (Numbers 16:22; Joshua 22:20), we also see wrath turned aside when the offender or offenders are executed (Numbers 25:4; Joshua 7:25-26). In the midst of acts of judgment, Isaiah warns repeatedly:
For all this His anger is not turned away
and His hand is stretched out still. (5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4, RSV)
But this is not the final word; a day of redemption is coming:
And in that day you will say, “I will give thanks to You, O Lord; for though You were angry with me, Your anger has turned away, and You comfort me.” (12:1, Amplified)
Over against this must be set the passages which speak of the Lord giving “full vent” to His wrath (Lamentations 4:11, NIV, RSV), of His anger not turning back (Jeremiah 23:20; 30:24). His anger is a fire that will “burn and not be quenched,” forever (Jeremiah 7:20; 17:4; 2 Chronicles 34:25). At a certain point, shortly before the Exile, He appears implacable:
Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did — with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.
Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn away from the heat of His fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke His anger. So the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from My presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, ‘There shall My name be.’” (2 Kings 23:25-27, NIV; compare Jeremiah 4:8)
A passage like this one reminds us that the Lord’s wrath — the “permanent attitude of the holy and just God when confronted by sin and evil”; personal, but “not wayward, fitful, or spasmodic, as human anger always is” (18) — is never simply dropped. Prompted by injustice, it turns aside only when justice has in some measure been satisfied. So we bear wrath (Micah 7:9) and store it up for ourselves (Romans 2:5); it rests on us (2 Chronicles 28:11, 13; John 3:36), “lies heavily” on us (Psalm 88:7, NIV). We can become “the people of [God’s] wrath” (Isaiah 10:6, KJV, Amplified, RSV), “a people always under the wrath of the Lord” (Malachi 1:4, of Edom), “by nature children [NIV “objects’] of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3, RSV). Yet the desire of God is always to turn from wrath. His wrath is a cup that can be drained (Jeremiah 25:15-16), a set of bowls that can be emptied out (Revelation 15:7; 16:1), a winepress that can squeeze out the last drop (Revelation 19:15); when this is accomplished, “God’s wrath (indignation) is completely expressed [reaches its climax and is ended]” (Revelation 15:1, Amplified). Quite apart from this termination, He has made provision for us to be “saved from God’s wrath” through the atoning death and resurrection life of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:9-10, NIV; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9).
The Old Testament consistently portrays God as responding to sin with pure and perfect anger, and at the same time regarding His creation with mercy, grace, and steadfast love. These aspects of His character are very much in tension; with our sin, we present Him with a wrenching dilemma, almost dividing Him against Himself. Always He puts love first, tempering anger. Even in wrath He remembers compassion or tender mercy [raham] (Habbakuk 3:2); He turns from anger to show mercy (Deuteronomy 13:17; Isaiah 60:10; Zechariah 1:12), because He is full of mercy (Psalm 78:38). Elsewhere His steadfast love [hesed] sets a limit to wrath (Jeremiah 3:12); His anger will never choke off His committed, unfailing love (Psalm 77:9), by reason of which His gracious presence comes [hanan] to strengthen us (Psalm 6:1-4). Because He delights in steadfast love, He will turn from anger and show mercy (Micah 7:18-19; Isaiah 54:8), even causing His people’s captors to be merciful (Psalm 106:45-46).
Jeremiah, who knows the divine indignation within and without, pleads:
Correct me, O Lord, but in just measure;
not in Thy anger, lest Thou bring me to nothing. (Jeremiah 10:24, RSV)
The author of Lamentations, perhaps Jeremiah, asks whether “You . . . are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22, NIV). The anger of God is always utterly overwhelming, impossible to fathom or long endure. Job charges, “God does not restrain His anger” (Job 9:13, NIV), and while this is wildly inaccurate — later, he will complain that God is too soft on the wicked (21:17-21) (19) — we understand: he feels utterly crushed. But the pledge of God’s character, as revealed to Moses in Exodus 34, is that anger, though strong, comes slowly; that mercy and grace come first; and that anger is followed by steadfast love.
Abounding in Love and Faithfulness
The next clause in God’s revelation to Moses in Exodus 34 offers the first of two statements about His steadfast love [hesed]. Here, it is linked with another quality, emet: His truth, reliability, or faithfulness. Given our definition of hesed as unfailing covenant love, this term might seem redundant — of course such a God is trustworthy. As Vine’s suggests, the pairing with emet underscores “the element of steadfastness (or strength)” in hesed. (20)
Emet is the word most frequently paired with hesed. (21) In part, this is needed because human hesed is weak and fickle. We see this in Rahab’s exchange with Joshua’s two spies, after she hides them and lies to their pursuers:
Now then, swear to me by the Lord that as I have dealt kindly [hesed] with you, you also will deal kindly [hesed] with my father’s house, and give me a sure [emet] sign, . . . (Joshua 2:12, RSV)
Her act of hesed was immediate and risky. In asking them to reciprocate — in effect, to include her within the Lord’s covenant — she recognizes that she is requesting a faithfulness whose expression lies in the future, when Jericho falls to the Israelites. So, not content with the spies’ hesed, with a gratitude that may be short-lived, she demands as well their enduring emet. And the spies agree:
Our lives for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly [hesed] and faithfully [emet] with you when the Lord gives us the land. (2:14, RSV)
Their “sure sign” or pledge to her is the scarlet cord that she binds in the window (2:18), symbolically placing her household “under the blood” of a past and coming Passover.
Rahab’s hesed was the bold act of a single hour, but, when human hesed must be maintained over time, and particularly when it extends into the future, it requires the sustaining power of emet. When one Israelite enters into a covenant with another, or solicits a pledge, the partner is enjoined to “deal kindly [hesed] and truly [emet]” (Genesis 24:49; 47:29, KJV; RSV “deal loyally and truly,” NIV “show kindness and faithfulness”).
This combination is far-reaching. Hesed brings into our relations with others the warmth and openness of the heart, while emet adds the integrity of keeping one’s word. These are fundamental elements of godly character:
Let love [hesed] and faithfulness [emet] never leave you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favor [hen, grace] and a good name
in the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3:3-4, NIV)
The thought is echoed in the New Testament: “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) does not refer merely to softening our blunt criticisms and harsh judgments with tact, but calls for thoroughgoing integrity and committed love, as the Amplified Bible brings out:
. . . let our lives lovingly express truth [in all things, speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly]. Enfolded in love, let us grown up in every way and in all things into Him . . .
Among humans, emet represents trustworthiness. Before revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph tests their words to see “whether there is any truth in you” (Genesis 42:16, Amplified). We must be taught and reminded to speak truth from the heart (Psalm 15:2), to serve faithfully with all our heart and soul (1 Kings 2:4; 1 Samuel 12:24).
It seems natural, at first, to read statements about the Lord’s emet in the same light, and to interpret even His declaration in Exodus 34:6 as meaning simply that He is a God who keeps His word — or, as one commentary puts it, “that whatever he says is correct and reliable and may be trusted even to the extent of life and death issues, or indeed eternal life and death issues.” (22)
We do receive such assurances in Scripture. The Lord’s words don’t need to be tested, because they are trustworthy (2 Samuel 7:28); indeed, they are true — they form the basis for all truth (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17). The God who desires “truth in the inward being” (Psalm 51:6, RSV) is Himself never less than wholehearted. With no layers of dissimulation nor lapses in awareness, He speaks as He is. He cannot be false to Himself, or even to those with whom He has identified Himself, setting His name on them.
But I think the clause in Exodus 34 pledges something more. We tend to misconceive the faithfulness, the emet, of God. The Lord is reliable, to be sure, but we must not mistake this to mean that He is predictable. He is not like the geyser dubbed Old Faithful; He does not conform to any formula or submit to any timetable. He watches over His word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12), but the fulfillment astonishes us, always supplying more than the words conveyed; and He gives much that was never even spoken, so that every believer confesses with Jacob, “I am unworthy of all the kindness [hesed] and faithfulness [emet] You have shown Your servant” (Genesis 32:10, NIV). He is faithful, that is, to His purposes.
When Abraham’s servant sets out on a journey to find Isaac a wife, he doesn’t know quite where he is headed. Later, he praises the Lord for leading him in the “right” or “true” [emet] way, because the road has brought him straight to marriageable kin (Genesis 24:48). The road itself promised nothing, nor was it specifically mentioned in any word from the Lord; it is an emet road because of the destination.
In the same way, the Lord’s emet doesn’t look primarily to the past, not even to the promises He has spoken. Rather, His faithfulness guides us forward (Psalm 43:3) into the future He has planned for us. Together, like angels, His steadfast love [hesed] and His faithfulness [emet] protect and save us in our journey with Him. They “continually preserve” us (Psalm 40:11, KJV; compare 57:3; 61:7). This becomes a blessing in Israel: “Now may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you!” (2 Samuel 2:6; 15:20, RSV).
The love of God comes with a way to walk in. We miss this, sometimes, with our talk of unconditional love. The father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not endlessly supportive, no matter what, in a vacuous way. When he clothes his boy in the garments of a son, and places on his finger a ring of authority, he is restoring him to a long-planned calling. The Lord is faithful to His purposes as well as His people.
The Lord reveals Himself as One “abounding” [rab] in hesed and emet. In Numbers 20:11 this word is used of the water gushing from the stricken Rock, and in Genesis 16:10 of Hagar’s descendants, too numerous to count. Though we have an abundance or “multitude” of transgressions (Lamentations 1:5) and iniquity or guilt (Jeremiah 30:14, 15), our merciful God “will abundantly [NIV “freely”] pardon” (Isaiah 55:7, RSV), for this is in accordance with His “abundant mercy [rahamim]” (Psalm 51:1, RSV). Our sufferings abound (Psalm 34:19; 123:3-4), but He delivers us “many times [rab]” (Nehemiah 9:28; Psalm 106:43). More than all, it is His hesed that abounds: “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to You” (Psalm 86:5, NIV). Though we fail to remember His “many kindnesses” (Psalm 106:7, NIV), He chooses to remember His covenant, and repents or turns from anger to comfort “according to the abundance of His steadfast love” (Psalm 106:45, RSV). Because of His abounding hesed He hears our cry (Psalm 69:13), blesses us with “great goodness” (Isaiah 63:7, RSV), and brings us into His presence (Psalm 5:7). Even in the worst of circumstances, we have this assurance:
. . . though He cause grief, He will have compassion [raham]
according to the abundance of His steadfast love. (Lamentations 3:32, RSV)
There is nothing stinting about our God.
Keeping Steadfast Love for Thousands
The Lord who passes before Moses does not have empty hands. He reiterates that He is a God of hesed: He delights to enter into covenants of love, even with creatures that have nothing to offer Him.
Nasar means to “guard with fidelity,” to “keep with faithfulness,” to watch, to preserve. (23) It is the furthest state imaginable from making a pledge, only to neglect it. Throughout years in the wilderness, the Lord guarded Jacob (and Jacob’s descendants) “as the apple of His eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10, NIV). He preserves our life (Proverbs 24:12). His vigilance often leads Him to intervene; nasar also means that He rescues or delivers — from bondage (Exodus 3:8; Judges 6:9; Nehemiah 9:28), from transgressions (Psalm 39:8), and from every trouble (Psalm 34:17, 19; 54:7); so sure is His grip that no power exists that can “rescue” out of His hand (Deuteronomy 32:39; Job 10:7; Hosea 2:10).
In theory, the Lord “keeps” those who keep His covenant (Psalm 25:10; compare Isaiah 26:3). In fact, He finds ways to guard at least a remnant even when we are unfaithful, preserving the king (Psalm 61:7; Proverbs 20:28) or His righteous Servant (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6, 8).
Inevitably, the “keeping” that stands guard [nasar] shades over into the “keeping” that tends [samar], that watches over our every step, slumberless (Psalm 121). (24) These two aspects of His care stand together and reinforce one another:
. . . for He guards [samar] the lives of His faithful ones [hasid]
and delivers [nasar] them from the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 97:10, NIV)
His care is deeply personal; it is a daily expression of His hesed:
Do not withhold Your mercy [rahamim] from me, O Lord;
may Your love [hesed] and Your truth [emet] always protect [nasar] me. (Psalm 40:11, NIV)
. . . because Thy steadfast love [hesed] is good [tob], deliver [nasar] me! (Psalm 109:21, RSV)
He has taken it upon Himself to become our Defender, and our Shepherd. Yet the Lord who passes before Moses is not harried or encumbered. There is no murmur of complaint in His declaration. It is natural for Him to show Himself strong, and faithful — even to “thousands” [Hebrew eleph].
This word, “indefinite for a great number,” (25) is frequently used to sketch the extent of the Lord’s covenant love: to thousands (Exodus 20:6; Jeremiah 32:18; compare Isaiah 60:22) or even to “a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Chronicles 16:15; Psalm 105:8; compare Luke 1:50). It is worth pausing to consider it.
The Lord is magnificent in vision, vast in wisdom, great in mercy; His love and faithfulness reach to the skies. He is, in every sense, a big God. And yet, such is His humility that He loves to step down from the grand scale, to walk in His garden. He never rests content with numbers; even when He blesses a crowd, He is not like a pope high on a balcony, but somehow manages to take each one, individually, in His arms (Mark 10:16).
He delights in being personal; He knows each of His chosen ones by name. But so mighty is His hesed love that, each time He bestows it on one, it extends to a multitude. He blesses Abraham, and one man’s descendants become more numerous than stars in all the galaxies or sands in all the seashores; He chooses David, and the one becomes a dynasty.
And so when He says that He preserves hesed for thousands, I don’t think He refers only to how many people He loves, but also and especially to how faithful His hesed becomes in each recipient. He still watches over it long after a lifespan runs its course. He is never done; His hesed continues forever to grow and to spread.
In the next clause, He will state just how far down hesed stoops, and will suggest how much it costs Him.
Forgiving Iniquity and Transgression and Sin
The Lord is not only slow to anger, but also forgiving of offenses. The term used here, nasa, is not the main Old Testament word for “forgive”; that would be salah — which first appears in this very scene, when Moses responds to the Lord (Exodus 34:9). The root meaning of salah may be related to pouring out or sprinkling, (26) and there is a connection: When the people sin unintentionally, through ignorance, the high priest sacrifices a bull, sprinkling some of its blood before the Lord and pouring out the rest (Leviticus 4:13-18). “In this way the priest will make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven [salah]” (Leviticus 4:20, NIV). The word may also suggest a releasing or a covering that puts the offense out of sight, as when the Lord promises, “. . . I will forgive [salah] their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34, RSV).
Moses has been introduced to the concept of blood atonement (e.g., in Exodus 30:10). On the day after the disaster of the golden calf, he says to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30, NIV). He then asks the Lord to “forgive their sin” (verse 32) — but he doesn’t yet speak of salah, of the outpouring that covers. He uses the verb nasa, to lift up and carry. (27)
Nasa can mean to carry sin away. Year after year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest is to confess all the sins of Israel over a live scapegoat, laying his hands on its head; the animal is then led away and released: “The goat will carry [nasa] on itself all their sins to a solitary place; . . .” (Leviticus 16:22, NIV). In a less hopeful context, it is the sins themselves that do the carrying:
. . . in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
. . . our iniquities, like the wind, take us away [nasa]. (Isaiah 64:5-6, RSV) (28)
Usually, though, nasa means to take up and carry — for a protracted period, perhaps forever. When Cain cries out, “My punishment is greater than I can bear [nasa]” (Genesis 4:13), it is the Lord who bears it with him, though from a distance (verse 16). Moses complains to the Lord that he cannot carry [nasa] the “burden” of “all this people” — a dead weight, like that of a heavy, squirming infant too young to walk (Numbers 11:11-15); “the weight and burden of you and your strife” (Deuteronomy 1:12, RSV). At the very least, Moses needs elders to help him (Numbers 11:17). But the Lord bears precisely this load:
. . . you have seen how the Lord your God bore [nasa] you, as a man bears [nasa] his son, in all the way that you went until you came to this place. (Deuteronomy 1:31, RSV)
. . . how I carried [nasa] you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. (Exodus 19:4, NIV; compare Deuteronomy 32:11)
Sometimes nasa seems to refer to a forgiveness that is a setting aside:
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord” —
and You forgave [nasa] the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5, NIV; Amplified “[instantly] forgave”; compare Psalm 85:2; 99:8)
Who is a God like Thee, pardoning [nasa] iniquity
and passing over [abar] transgression
for the remnant of His inheritance?
He does not retain His anger [ap] for ever
because He delights in steadfast love [hesed]. (Micah 7:18, RSV)
In many contexts, though, it is clear that such “forgiveness” is costly, difficult, and ongoing. When the Lord agrees to Abraham’s plea to “spare” [nasa] Sodom and Gomorrah if a critical mass of righteous inhabitants can be found (Genesis 18:24, 26), it’s evident that the flagrant sins of the majority will not cease. Similarly, when the prophet Ezekiel lies first on one side, then the other, bearing [nasa] the iniquity of Israel and Judah, a day for each year (Ezekiel 4:4-6) — or when the high priest bears [nasa] before the Lord the iniquity of the holy things on his forehead, and the names of the tribes on his shoulders and over his heart (Exodus 28:38, 12, 29) — these symbolic actions only hint at the commitment that the Lord willingly takes upon Himself every day. He has made us and carried us from the womb, and will carry us even to old age (Isaiah 46:3-4); other nations must shoulder and carry their dead gods, but the living God carries His people (verse 7). He carried them all the days of old, to the point of sharing their afflictions (Isaiah 63:9); and in days to come, like a strong and gentle Shepherd, He will gather His lambs and carry them close to His heart (40:11).
Is there a limit to what the Lord will bear? Job doesn’t seem to think so, exclaiming with pained incredulity, “. . . why do You not pardon [nasa] my transgression and take away [abar: pass over, as in Micah 7:18] my iniquity?” (Job 7:21, Amplified). But the Lord warns Israel that the angel of His presence “will not pardon [nasa] your transgression; for My name is in him” (Exodus 23:21, Amplified, RSV). Joshua warns:
You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God; He is a jealous God, He will not forgive [nasa] your transgressions or your sins. (Joshua 24:19, Amplified, RSV)
Much later, the stunned remnant of Judah is told:
The Lord could no longer bear [nasa] your evil doings and the abominations which you committed; therefore your land has become a desolation and a waste and a curse, without inhabitant, as it is this day. (Jeremiah 44:22, RSV)
Yet our God continues to carry, even when He appears to have cast off a burden once and for all. He has provided a Servant who “took up [nasa] our infirmities” (Isaiah 53:4, NIV; “all our griefs,” RSV) and “bore [nasa] the sin of many” (verse 12). And this time, He bore it away.
There is uncertainty in Moses as he goes to the Lord following the golden calf, “perhaps” to make atonement (Exodus 32:30). He knows that he is asking God to “bear with,” and he bravely presents an ultimatum:
But now, please forgive [nasa] their sin — but if not, then blot me out of the book You have written. (Exodus 32:32, NIV)
The Lord pointedly rejects both alternatives, refusing to blot out Moses while at the same time promising further punishment for Israel and immediately sending a plague (32:33-35). He does not appear to forgive. Then, passing before Moses, He declares that He is a God who forgives [nasa] “iniquity and transgression and sin” (34:7).
Moses responds with a brand new verb:
. . . let the Lord, I pray You, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon [salah] our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your inheritance. (Exodus 34:9, Amplified)
He is asking that the offense somehow be covered and atoned for, while acknowledging that the people still must be borne with.
Again, there is no direct reply. But see what happens after a later instance of rebellion. Moses reminds God of His character (of His “power” or strength, verse 17), and then goes on:
“Pardon [salah], I pray You, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your mercy and loving-kindness [hesed], just as you have forgiven [nasa] [them] from Egypt until now.”
And the Lord said, “I have pardoned [salah] according to your word.” (Numbers 14:19-20, Amplified)
In this passage, the Lord is represented as consistently forgiving [nasa] His covenant people — bearing and bearing with them, bearing and bearing away their sins — because of His steadfast love; consequently, He forgives [salah] — provides atonement for, covers, puts out of sight — each particular infraction. And then He goes on to say that this generation, though “forgiven,” will die in the desert without entering Canaan (14:21-23), after bearing [nasa] their iniquities for 40 years (verse 34).
There is thus a “but” that follows closely upon the Lord’s forgiveness. We shall look at it more closely as we turn to the next clause. Now, it remains to be said that the Lord holds nothing back when He declares that He forgives or bears “iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7). Iniquity [awon] is the fundamental perversity or “bentness” in our nature that results from the Fall, as well as every sort of evil craving; transgression [pesa] is willful deviation from and rebellion against known standards; and sin [hattat] is a broad term for any missing of the mark. (29) He refers, then, to “evils and sins of all sorts.” (30) He does not commit Himself only to first offenses or minor and unintentional lapses. He shoulders it all.
Not Clearing (the Guilty), Visiting Iniquity
The Lord may forgive, but He does not “acquit” or “hold innocent” or “leave unpunished” [naqah]. (31) In His justice, He has a high regard for the innocent [naqi], and is their Champion (Exodus 23:7; Proverbs 6:16-17). King Manasseh cannot be pardoned [salah] because he’s filled Jerusalem with innocent blood (2 Kings 34:4; compare 21:16; Jeremiah 19:4).
What the Lord does not “acquit,” He eventually “visits upon” the offender. This verb, paqad, is a trumpet call of divine intervention; (32) the Lord announces to Moses and to all that He’s no watchmaker god, sitting back to observe, but a God who actively involves Himself in human lives. Sometimes He “visits” in great mercy, as when He remembers His promises to Sarah and to Hannah, and acts to fulfill them (Genesis 21:1; 1 Samuel 2:21). But often His remembering is a reckoning, a nightmare punishment that continues through successive generations.
This is wonderful news for the innocent and the oppressed. When Moses makes known to the despondent Israelites that the Lord has “visited” them in their bondage, they bow in worship (Exodus 3:16; 4:31).
And yet . . . how often are we innocent? As soon as the Lord begins to visit our sins upon us, we cry out with Job:
Thou has granted me life and steadfast love [hesed];
and Thy care [visitation, pequddah] has preserved my spirit.
Yet these things Thou didst hide in Thy heart;
I know that this was Thy purpose.
If I sin, Thou dost mock me,
and dost not acquit [naqah] me of my iniquity. (Job 10:12-14, RSV)
The golden calf, though a “great sin” (Exodus 32:30, 31), was still a discrete offense or series of offenses; but when Moses asks the Lord to “forgive” by bearing it [nasa], He replies instead that, in due time, He will surely visit the sin [paqad] upon the offenders (32:32). How much more, when the issue is our iniquity — our “bentness,” the crook in our fallen natures that causes us to crave darkness and death — do we summon a visitation of judgment.
Still, this is not the last word. Naqah means “to acquit,” but also “to cleanse.” We who have ruined our innocence may yet be taught to seek cleansing, even from confused and impaired moral judgment (Psalm 19:12). Though the Lord wonders aloud, “How long will it be before they attain purity [niqqayon]?” (Hosea 8:5, Amplified), still He remains determined to “cleanse and hold as innocent [naqah]” even the bloodguilt of His people (Joel 3:21, Amplified).
Forgiveness is no magic wand to bear away, wash away, or cover. Yet such is the steadfast love of the Lord that even iniquity cannot contain it. What He may not forgive, He will cleanse, visiting us again and again until this is accomplished; as He says to Israel:
You only have I known (chosen sympathized with, and loved) of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your wickedness and punish you for all your iniquities. (Amos 3:2, Amplified)
Individually, this cleansing process extends beyond my lifetime; corporately, the Church will not be pure in my generation. But the hesed love of the Lord, which is His glory, hides us in safety and passes before us, marching toward His fulfillment.
Like Moses, we acknowledge that we have glimpsed the goodness of the Lord (Exodus 33:19); we bow and worship, entreat the grace of His presence, and seek a deep-cleansing atonement.
How Much Has Changed?
Someone may object that this picture of God is too “Mosaic,” too “Old Testament.” Haven’t we now come to a different and more gracious mountain — to heavenly Zion rather than nebulous Sinai (Hebrews 12:18-24; Galatians 4:24-31)? Indeed, we stand in a better place, but the Lord has not changed:
- We have been “saved” (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5) and we shall be saved (Romans 5:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:2) — even saved “to the uttermost (completely, perfectly, finally, and for all time and eternity)” (Hebrews 2:25, Amplified) — but saved with difficulty, with much toil, at great cost (1 Peter 4:18), by a narrow escape (Jude 23; 1 Corinthians 3:15); through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13), we continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), and sometimes this requires deep sorrow and repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).
- Through Jesus, God has made atonement or propitiation for sin (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17), and has brought about reconciliation (Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18; Colossians 1:20-22), but the effect is that the redeemed are deeply and radically identified with their Redeemer. As He died, so we are dead (Romans 6:8; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Colossians 2:20); we live as dead beings restored to life (John 5:24; 1 John 3:14), but our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3, NIV); His life in us requires that we die daily (Luke 9:23-24; 1 Corinthians 15:31). Jesus was “sacrificed” once for all, bearing and bearing away sin (Hebrews 9:28), but in Him we become living sacrifices (Romans 12:1; Ephesians 5:2); we are commanded to persevere (Hebrews 10:26) in the only “new and living way” to dwell in the presence of God, the way that is literally the body of Jesus (10:20). It is “in Christ” that we are made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:6-7; 2 Timothy 1:1); paradoxically, this life entails showing or manifesting His death (1 Corinthians 11:26) and bearing it about (2 Corinthians 4:10-11). We share His sufferings (Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13) and His shame (Hebrews 13:13).
- We have been washed clean (1 Corinthians 6:11; Revelation 1:5), but not like a mindless pig eager to run back to the muck (2 Peter 2:22). We are cleansed like a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), and if we are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit we shall be inhabited by unclean spirits (Matthew 12:43-45). Without His holiness we shall not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
- We are forgiven of all sins (Colossians 2:13), but must walk in forgiveness (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 6:12-15); we have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10; Romans 11:30; 2 Corinthians 4:1), but must either learn to show mercy (Matthew 5:7; Luke 10:37; James 3:17) or one day experience judgment without mercy (James 2:12-13).
- We have been showered with abundant grace (John 1:16; Romans 5:2), but it is incumbent on us not to set it aside, frustrate it (Galatians 2:21), or fall from it (5:4).
- There is no condemnation for those in Christ (Romans 8:1), but — to save us from condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:32) — there still are discipline (Hebrews 12:5-11) and pruning (John 15:2), and even bruising struggles to subdue our bodies (1 Corinthians 9:27; compare 11:31). We shall be saved from wrath (Romans 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:10), the wrath that abides on all who reject the Son (John 3:36), but we must put to death all those aspects of our “bent” selves that invite wrath (Colossians 3:5-8).
- He has visited His people with salvation (Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16), but there are still visitations to come (1 Peter 2:12), especially for those who fail to welcome Him (Luke 19:44). He dwells in us (Ephesians 3:17; James 4:5), but, if we grieve Him away (Ephesians 4:30) — if we outrage the Spirit of grace (Hebrews 10:29) — He will come back to visit us. If we do not reckon ourselves dead to sin (Romans 6:11), there will come a reckoning (Matthew 18:24; 25:19). The Lord will judge His people (Hebrews 10:30; 1 Peter 4:17).
- All Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26), but we are members of a remnant chosen by grace (11:5), standing in fear (11:20) lest our unbelief and arrogance invite a hardening (11:20, 25), and lest our “bent” hearts turn away (Hebrews 12:25). For God is both kind and severe (Romans 11:22) — cutting, sharp, ready to prune — though His mercy triumphs (11:32) and His grace suffices (2 Corinthians 12:9), superabounds (Romans 5:20; 1 Timothy 1:14), and overflows (Romans 5:15; 2 Corinthians 9:8).
From Hesed to Agape
In the New Testament, the Hebrew word for the emotional divine compassion, rahamim, is matched by the Greek splanchna. “It is the strongest word in Greek for the feeling of compassion,” (33) and it is used especially of Jesus — even though, in Greek thought, a divine being must be beyond feeling, impervious to pain. (34) Jesus is “moved with compassion” when He sees blind men (Matthew 20:34), a leper (Mark 1:41), a grieving mother (Luke 7:13), and again and again when He sees ordinary, spiritually helpless “crowds” of humanity (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32).
Hesed is reflected in two New Testament words. Eleos is mercy: a commentary describes it in emotional terms, as God’s “attitude toward those who are in distress,” (35) but we see especially acts of mercy, often prompted by splanchna (as when the blind men appeal to Jesus for eleos and He feels splanchna, Matthew 20:30-34). Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, rejoices at the “tender mercy [splanchna eleos]” of the divine visitation in Jesus, a glorious act of mercy that is filled with compassion (Luke 1:78).
Hesed also appears as agape. This “love” is “the characteristic word of Christianity,” (36) “the very key word of NT ethics”; (37) it is also easily misunderstood. Like hesed, it does not spring from emotion, but is the love of choice and selection, (38) a deliberate and settled choice to seek another’s highest good. (39) A definition such as “unconquerable benevolence, invincible good will” (40) can even strike us as formal and cold. But affection, though distinct, accompanies agape; in fact, closed affections [splanchna] are a sure sign that the agape of God is absent (1 John 3:17). When He looks upon our need, even our iniquitous “bent,” Jesus is “moved with compassion [splanchna],” but it is agape that prompted Him to come close in the first place. The prodigal’s father is “filled with compassion [splanchnizomai]” at the sight of his boy (Luke 15:20, NIV), but he has been steadfastly watching for him, and the memory of the father’s consistent, loving goodness invites the repentant return. The good Samaritan by his actions shows mercy [eleos] to the helpless after his feelings of compassion [splanchna] are aroused, but the entire episode serves to illustrate agape love (Luke 10:37, 33, 27). Many of Jesus’ parables are parables of agape: the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44), the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46), the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7; Matthew 18:12-14), and the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) all show the high, even absurd value God places on some one particle of creation, and the great, even obsessive and sacrificial lengths He goes to in order to bring it near and keep it safe.
The great difference between hesed and agape concerns the covenant foundation. We have said that hesed is a covenant commitment, expecting a return. Throughout most of the Old Testament, the Mosaic covenant is in view, and so the Lord’s hesed is for Israel (Ezra 3:11; Psalm 136:10-21), even if we are occasionally reminded that He has compassion [rahamim] on all He has made (Psalm 145:9, NIV). The surprising good news of the New Testament — a scandal to Pharisees — is that His agape love embraces even His enemies: tax collectors, sinners, Gentiles (Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-36; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 2:4). Part of “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages” (Romans 16:25, RSV), now revealed in Paul’s gospel, is the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation (Ephesians 3:6; Romans 11:25); a related aspect is that our glorious life is “in Christ” (Colossians 1:27; 2:2-3; Ephesians 1:9-10). The Lord has stepped back to an older covenant, with Abraham or with Noah or even with Adam; “in Christ” we are dead to the requirements of the Sinai covenant (Romans 7:4-6; Galatians 2:19), even as, “in Christ,” His agape works in us to satisfy the law’s requirements (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14).
We may picture this in terms of dimensions. The Lord’s hesed is primarily vertical: as high as heaven, as deep as sin; it also persists through time. Horizontally, it is more circumscribed; to Job’s friend Zophar, it is the wisdom of God that is long and wide as well as high and deep (Job 11:7-9). In contrast, agape extends in all directions; as Barclay suggests, “Christianity needed a much more inclusive word” than philia. (41) Paul prays that believers, themselves “rooted and established” in agape, may “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love [agape] of Christ” (Ephesians 3:17-18, NIV). The Lord has thrown open His arms, and the “immeasurably more” of His powerful work in us (Ephesians 3:20, NIV) renovates and transforms us accordingly. We acquire width [platos] as we open our hearts to others (2 Corinthians 6:11, 13), length [mekos] as the seed of faith and obedience grows (Mark 4:27), height [hupsos] as we are humbled and crucified and exalted with Christ (John 12:32; James 1:9; 4:20; Ephesians 4:8), and depth [bathos] as our sins are rooted out and our lives become founded on the words of God (Luke 6:48).
So Is God’s Love “Unconditional”?
Our English-language discussions of the “love” of God are often frustrated by our tendency to confound Hebrew ahabah, hesed, rahamim, and Greek agape, splanchna, and eleos. We say that God loves all people “unconditionally,” no matter what. This is clearly not the case with His affectionate ahabah love. Occasionally His affection for Israel is said to be “everlasting” or “forever” [olam] (Jeremiah 31:3; 1 Kings 10:9); it is “as strong as death” and cannot be quenched by many waters (Song of Songs 8:6-7); but, even with Israel, we find Him saying in Hosea 9:15 that because of their sins, at least for a time, He will withdraw His affection, and they will experience His hatred.
It is much more accurate to say that the Lord’s hesed endures, that He maintains a steadfast commitment to loving-kindness, even when His affection is taken away. Dozens of times, His hesed is declared to be “everlasting” or “forever” [olam]. (42) But even this love is not the unlimited benevolence we have in mind when we speak of “unconditional” love. He says of David:
I will not take My steadfast love [hesed] from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. (1 Samuel 7:15, RSV; 1 Chronicles 17:13)
And He warns Jeremiah not to lament,
For I have taken away My peace [shalom] from this people, says the Lord, My steadfast love [hesed] and mercy [rahamim]. (Jeremiah 16:5, RSV)
These instances are rare, but they serve to remind us that the love of God is not literally without limit, without end, without condition. “A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed — without remedy” (Proverbs 29:1, NIV; see also 6:12-15; and especially 2 Chronicles 36:15-16). There is a mystery here, and it is not for us to attempt to define the boundaries of mercy, or to cause anyone to despair; but, equally, it is wicked to presume on endless tolerance of hearts and lives that grieve the soul of God.
Very tentatively, I suggest that both of these withdrawals of hesed are temporary and disciplinary. The word to Jeremiah is part of an announcement of the Babylonian Exile, and the Lord quickly adds that Restoration will follow (Jeremiah 16:14-15). The overall message of this prophet, in keeping with the rest of the Old Testament, is that the Lord’s faithful hesed endures (3:12; 9:24; 31:3); His restored people will celebrate precisely this aspect of His character (33:10-11).
As for King Saul, his story does not end with his death in battle, but continues for at least two more generations. Saul is one who values occasional, extravagant sacrifice over steady, faithful, loving obedience (1 Samuel 15:22-23). When the Lord rejects him as king and withdraws His hesed love, the prophet Samuel’s grief over Saul (16:1) surely reflects some measure of the Lord’s own sadness (15:10-11, 35). The Lord’s Spirit departs from Saul; he is tormented by an evil spirit (16:14) and ultimately deserted in battle (28:5-6, 16-19). Yet the Lord has not completely abandoned his family — not when he has a valiant son like Jonathan, who is convinced that nothing can stop the Lord from saving (14:6), and who knows how to strengthen or encourage a man in God (23:16). Jonathan is drawn to David by natural affection [ahabah] (18:1, 3; 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26) — like Saul himself for a time (1 Samuel 16:21) — but he also learns from David to value loving-kindness [hesed] (20:8, 14-15), unlike his cousin Abner, whose loyalty [hesed] is to the house of Saul (2 Samuel 3:8). Saul brings a curse on Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:24-28), and the son dies with his father (31:2-6), and the same calamity results in the crippling of Jonathan’s young son Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4). Later, though, the question on the heart of David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), becomes, “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness [hesed] for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Samuel 9:1). He restores property to this broken man, this “dead dog,” and elevates him to dine at the king’s table (9:8-9). Later, Mephibosheth’s own loyalty to David is called into question (16:3-4); his name is never cleared, but, as if in echo of his selfless father (1 Samuel 18:3; 23:17), he consents to be stripped of all, rejoicing in the king’s triumph (2 Samuel 19:24-30). When we last see Mephibosheth, David spares him from judgment for a sin committed by his grandfather Saul (21:7).
We all wish to be strong like Jonathan, and instead we all err and rebel like Saul. But it seems to me that the withdrawal of hesed is intended to make Mephibosheths of us, to bring us into a kind of death. Not mighty warriors but weak and dependent, we are willing to live by and for the hesed of God. We come out of the wilderness leaning upon our Beloved (Song of Songs 8:5).
The case is similar with agape. Human agape is weak and unstable, growing cold (Matthew 24:12), diminishing from what it was at first (Revelation 2:4); Paul pronounces a blessing on all who love the Lord Jesus with “an imperishable and incorruptible” (43) love (Ephesians 6:24). In contrast, the agape of God “never fails [never fades out or becomes obsolete or comes to an end]” (1 Corinthians 13:8, Amplified); no power exists that can divide or separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:35-39). Still, it can be withheld: this much is implied in Paul’s injunction to the Corinthian Christians to “reaffirm” their agape love for one who has been consigned to discipline (2 Corinthians 2:8, RSV, NIV).
It has become fashionable to say, “God will never love you any more than He does right now. And God will never love you any less than He does right now.” Undoubtedly, there is comfort in this. And there are times, when we have sinned, and condemnation comes against us, when we truly need to be assured that God will not forever take away His love. But this statement, using the broad English word “love,” is confusing and misleading. Ultimately, despite its good intentions, it robs us of an incentive to press in to know Him more.
It is true that the Lord’s hesed and His agape tend to be steady, neither growing nor changing — though “God will never love you less” misleadingly suggests that He will never withdraw them, no matter what we do. But unvarying sameness is just not the nature of emotional ahabah and splanchna love. Ahabah affection is mother- or father-love: right from the beginning, it wells up. “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (Hosea 11:1, NIV, RSV). The Lord loves the newborn Solomon, so much so that he is renamed Jedidiah, “Loved by the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:24-25). This is unconditional love, strictly defined: baby Solomon has not fulfilled any conditions to earn or deserve this love; in fact, he comes out of a union that began in adultery and murder. The divine ahabah catches up the undeserving.
This is mirrored by some uses of agapao in the New Testament. Jesus looks upon the rich young man and “loves” him (Mark 10:21). This doesn’t mean that He didn’t love him a moment before; but there’s an emotional upsurge, as well as an intention and an engagement. At the same time, the young man is not instantly promoted to the depth of affection, the intimate bonds, the shared memories and burdens, that Jesus cultivated with dear friends, even though the same verb is used: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5, RSV).
There are degrees of affection, and of the settled seeking of the other’s good that completes agape, as we all know when we stand in simplicity. Paul challenges one prickly congregation, to whom he has given much, “If I love [agapao] you more, will you love [agapao] me less?” (2 Corinthians 12:15, NIV). The runaway slave Onesimus, in coming to know the Lord, becomes a “beloved [agapetos] brother” (Philemon 16), “very dear” to Paul and “even dearer” to his owner (NIV). Paul, at least, presumably “loved” Onesimus from the first, but something has changed. In a similar way, do we not become dearer to God as His love increases and abounds in us (1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:3), is perfected or made complete in us (1 John 2:5; 4:12, 17)? If God’s heart toward us does not change, let us at any rate acknowledge that our hearts and capacities do change. Abraham becomes the “friend” [ahab] of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23) by walking for many years in His affection [ahabah].
What if, instead of proclaiming God’s unconditional love, a relief from failure and an excuse for never having to mature, we learned to meditate on His steadfast love, faithful and gracious, compassionate and everlasting? What if, instead of seeking consolation in the thought that His affections are unchanging, we dared to believe that we can spend eternity exploring the depth and height, the length and breadth of His passion for us? The character of God is not a blanket to wrap ourselves up in, sins and insecurities and all; it is a multicolored flame that calls forth everything we are, heart and soul and mind and strength.
The Myth of Sacrifice
We keep embracing the lie that says that God particularly prizes sacrifice. Look at the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He’s working in the fields, hoping that his performance will be noticed. When the father expresses his hesed for the good-for-nothing younger brother, the elder explodes, “angry [with deep-seated wrath]” (Luke 15:28, Amplified):
Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! (15:29-30, NIV)
He is aggrieved. He has shown his loyalty by giving up some of his time, and by adhering to the letter of the father’s expressed will (if not his heart). His service should be rewarded, though he doesn’t ask for time together — truth be told, he’d rather have a party with his friends.
He is upset particularly because an animal has been killed, sacrificed. In his scheme of justice, it was rightfully his, in recognition of all his sacrifices. Isn’t that what love is?
But the father answers:
My son, . . . you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. (15:31-32, NIV)
The slaughtered calf is indeed an indicator of the father’s love, but not in the way that the elder son supposes. It is not a reward, but a redemption. In his spirit, the younger brother was lost, dead (Luke 15:24, 32); he had “joined himself” to a harsh master (verse 15). In the Old Testament, the Lord shows His love (His deep affection, ahabah) for Israel by redeeming the people from bondage in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8). During the Passover darkness, in the very shadow of the Angel of Death, He makes it clear that redemption requires a sacrifice, a death, a covering of blood (Exodus 12:23; Romans 3:24-25; Ephesians 1:7). And as Abraham discovered long before, God Himself provides the sacrifice for us (Genesis 22:8, 13, 14).
After the first Passover, the people of Israel could be called “the redeemed of the Lord” (Psalm 107:2; Isaiah 62:12). But the covenant includes a special provision for the redemption of firstborn sons (Exodus 13:11-16). In the parable, the elder brother has long since been redeemed. The father gladly paid a price, not because a reward was due, but because he planned an ongoing relationship: “In Your unfailing love [hesed] You will lead the people You have redeemed” (Exodus 15:13, NIV). In this communion there is life, hope, security, identity, and intimacy:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name;
you are Mine. (Isaiah 43:1, NIV)
But the elder brother prefers to think of himself as “special,” not as redeemed. He wants recognition and reward — just for himself; he refuses to see a gift that is shared with anyone else, especially a “sinner.” The father gives the best gift of all, himself: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31, NIV). But the son would rather have a dead goat plus bragging rights than a living father and unfailing, unmerited love.
Pride erects barriers, creates distance. The younger son squandered his father’s money, and hired or joined himself to a master; but the elder son, no less, has squandered the father’s hesed and joined himself to a lie. By the very fact that he no longer sees himself as redeemed, he shows that he too needs redemption. As God says of Israel, “I long to redeem them, but they speak lies against Me” (Hosea 7:13, NIV). The calf and the party are for both boys, but when the parable ends we are in suspense, waiting to see whether the elder son will choose steadfast love or lies. Jesus and the Father wait to see which you and I will choose.
The same lie is at work in the Parable of the Talents or Minas. One servant misses the opportunity to show himself trustworthy by exercising his faith, investing the hesed that he has received. He is overcome by fear because he is convinced that his master is hard or merciless [skleros] (Matthew 25:24), severe or strict [austeros] (Luke 19:21). (44) Incredibly, even though the master has entrusted him with seed money, the servant persists in believing that the master demands a harvest where he hasn’t sown. In fact, the Master of hesed is always sowing; every good gift comes from Him (James 1:17), and He desires to sow in and through the least of His servants. But this man misses the hesed and mistrusts the Giver. Paralyzed by fear of failure, he buries the gift. He has allied himself with the strangers surrounding the estate, who hate the master and reject him as king (Luke 19:14). (45)
It is easy to become the elder brother, toiling in a barren field. It is easy to think, as the servant does, that our God leaves the sowing and tending to us, and only shows up for the harvest. (Is He not preoccupied, staring down the road after the lost?) Paul, delivered from Pharisaism, sees more clearly: God always works with us, and He alone can create growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
What’s Wrong with Sacrifice?
On two occasions, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to learn what Hosea 6:6 means — that God desires steadfast love rather than sacrifice. One episode involves His fellowship with sinners, the other His alleged low regard for the sanctity of the sabbath.
Jesus associates with sinners, befriends them, heals them, shares their food (Matthew 9:9-13). This all expresses hesed, with the added surprise of agape — for, yes, God’s steadfast love extends even to these, who have been told that they are enemies of God, outside His love, because they have broken His covenant.
The Pharisees are bewildered by this. Though they would not have recognized the problem before they encountered Jesus, for them the “steadfast love” of the Lord clashes with His holiness — and loses. Holiness is understood especially as separation from all that is unclean, and so as a form of sacrifice, “giving up” anything less than wholesome. If the Lord is too pure to look on evil (Habakkuk 1:13), surely His people must abstain from contact with the ungodly. We can’t afford to love anything that might defile us.
Jesus turns this outlook on its head. Hesed, the heart of God, is primary. Sinners, viewed through the eyes of love, are “afflicted” (Matthew 9:12), and the holiness of God is not a sore spot to be guarded, or a gift to be buried, but a positive power that can work through love to heal and transform. Sacrifice stands at a distance, disapproving and waiting for applause, but love embraces and unites. As a teacher of the law acknowledges in Mark 12:33, loving God and neighbor “is much more than” (Amplified, RSV) sacrifices; it is abundantly and excessively greater.
In the other incident, the Pharisees condemn Jesus’ disciples for plucking and eating grain as they pass through a field on the sabbath. According to their statutes, two separate sins — two different forms of “work” forbidden on the sabbath — have been committed: “reaping” the grain and then “threshing” or “sifting” it by rubbing. (46) Jesus replies that no guilt attaches to the disciples (Matthew 12:7), and He again quotes Hosea 6:6 to the Pharisees. The sabbath of rest was not enjoined by God so that it might become a sacrifice, a yardstick to measure our spirituality and others’; paradoxically, that would be work, like the elder brother’s toil in the fields, away from the father. The sabbath is another gift, an expression of the divine hesed. The Lord invites us to enjoy His bounty, and He encourages us to gather strength so that we may serve others and do them good.
Summarizing the gulf dividing the Pharisees and Jesus, Alfred Edersheim says well:
They knew no mercy that was not sacrifice — with merit attaching; He no sacrifice, real and acceptable to God, that was not mercy. (47)
Sacrifice stops short of service; it becomes an end in itself. Or it saves its energy for the one great noble and heroic act, and then takes a long vacation, and proves itself to be surly and ill-tempered all the rest of the time, especially when divine and human applause are not forthcoming. These considerations help me toward an understanding of Proverbs 12:10, at least as it applies to my own heart: “. . . even the tender mercies [rahamim; NIV “the kindest acts”] of the wicked are cruel” (Amplified); that is, their root is not kindness at all, but pride and a desire to manipulate.
But Jesus, even when He becomes a sacrifice, practices steadfast love. At the supper, though He knows what lies ahead for Him, He washes the disciples’ feet: “Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love” (John 13:1, NIV). After the agony of Gethsemane, He is not a man on a mission, too busy for His friends; He makes time to consider their safety (John 18:8-9). Even on the cross, He shows love and mercy to others (Luke 23:34, 42-43; John 19:26-27).
When I focus on sacrifice, it becomes a duty; my mind isn’t on it and my heart isn’t in it. No wonder, then, that the Lord frequently says that He isn’t pleased with sacrifices (Psalm 50:8-13; Isaiah 1:11; 66:3; Jeremiah 6:20), particularly those of the wicked (Proverbs 15:8; 21:27; Hosea 8:11-13). He prefers obedience (1 Samuel 15:22; Jeremiah 7:21-24) and the offering of heartfelt thanks (Jonah 2:9; Psalm 50: 14, 23; 107:22; 116:17), especially when these are signs of inward change: “My sacrifice [the sacrifice acceptable] to God is a broken spirit; . . .” (Psalm 51:17, Amplified).
In the New Testament, Jesus is our great and final sacrifice (Hebrews 10; 1 Corinthians 5:7). Paul is poured out like a drink offering (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), and every believer is called to be a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1), offering sacrifices of praise, doing good, and sharing (Hebrews 13:15-16).
But there is a lightness in the laying out. We offer ourselves with our eyes on the mercies or compassion [oiktirmos] shown to us by God (Romans 12:1); Paul is glad and rejoicing as he is poured out (Philippians 2:17-18; 1 Corinthians 12:15), and Jesus “gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” because He loved [agapao] us, because we are “dearly loved [agapetos] children” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NIV).
If we attend to sacrifice, we falter and fall away, but if we set our hearts and minds on steadfast love, receiving it and remaining in it and giving it rule in us, we can be faithful even in sacrifice, following in the steps of our Lord, whose love “stands firm forever” (Psalm 89:2, NIV).
At one point, Paul prays, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness [NIV “perseverance”] of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5, RSV). Just for a moment, for the sake of training us in godliness, a distinction is made in the Godhead: in the Son we see all the strength of faithful endurance, and in the Father all the seeming weakness of unfailing love. The Son became a sacrifice for us; the Father offered Him up. He is giving still, even to us, the broken and rebellious:
He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all — how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32, NIV)
Islam famously declares that God has no son, and Christians reply that this is wrong, that the Lord Jesus is indeed very God, become incarnate, Son of God and Son of man. Sometimes, though, we forget the magnitude of the error and of the grace; for Father and Son have sacrificed in order to bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10, NIV, RSV). God has an abundance of sons; His house is thronged. Daily, still, we receive “His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves” (Ephesians 1:6, NIV).
God is the longest-suffering of unrequited lovers. If He gave way to bitterness, He could outlast any country song in listing all that He has sacrificed for the unworthy. Yet when He reveals Himself to Moses, when He comes near in the person of the Lord Jesus, He makes no complaint. He pours out love, and the love is a gentle, persistent current, washing away defenses and lies, drawing us out into the great ocean-heart of our God.
O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
for His steadfast love endures for ever.
(1) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 338; emphasis in original.
(2) J.W.L. Hoad, “Mercy, Merciful,” in J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 809.
(3) John H. Stek, note on Psalm 6:4, in Kenneth Barker, ed., The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 791.
(4) Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996), Old Testament section, 142.
(5) See 1 Chronicles 16:34, 41; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psalm 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1-4, 29; 136:1-26; 138:8; Jeremiah 33:11. This list of references is probably not complete. Note that Ezra 3:11 is unique in explicitly restricting the scope of the Lord’s hesed: it is forever “toward Israel.”
(6) See also 2 Chronicles 30:9; Psalm 111:4; Nahum 1:3.
(7) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 933; emphasis in original.
(8) John Bright, Jeremiah, 2nd ed., The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 282.
(9) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 12.
(10) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 335-36.
(11) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 100.
(12) Jim B. McClure, Grace Revisited (Geelong, Australia: Trailblazer Ministries, 2010; online preview at https://books.google.com/books/about/Grace_Revisited.html?id=UfwcPwF8PVgC), 39-40; see 48 on Warfield.
(13) On “grace” in Proverbs 3:34, see Brother Lee, “Grace, NOT Unmerited Favor,” Thoughts from God Ministries, http://thoughtsfromgod.com/index.php?p=1_98_GRACE-Not-Unmerited-Favor. James Ryle’s definition is set forth in an undated audio series, Amazing Grace: Experiencing the Fullness of God’s Empowering Presence, available also on DVD (http://store.truthworks.com/amazing-grace). See also Ryle’s blog, http://jamesryle.blogspot.com/2009_06_01_archive.html McClure (49) refers to a book by Ryle, The Empowering Presence of God, but I have not been able to locate this.
(14) McClure, 49.
(15) McClure, 46-47. But he goes on to emphasize the divine power associated with grace (56-65), and to make other helpful points.
(16) William Barclay, In the Hands of God (New York and Evanston: Harper Chapel, 1966), 157.
(17) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 161-62.
(18) R.V.G. Tasker, “Wrath,” New Bible Dictionary, 1341.
(19) Elihu notices this flaw in Job’s reasoning (Job 35:15); Jonah echoes it (Jonah 4:1-3).
(20) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 142.
(21) In addition to the passages cited in this section, see Genesis 24:27; 1 Kings 3:6; Nehemiah 9:32-33; Psalm 25:10; 26:3; 40:10; 57:10; 69:13; 85:10; 89: 14; 108:4; 115:1; 117:2; 138:2; Proverbs 14:22; 16:6; 20:28; Isaiah 16:5; Hosea 4:1; Micah 7:20; Zechariah 7:9.
(22) Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary Vol. 2, gen. ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B & H, 2006), 716; emphasis in original.
(23) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 665; Vine’s, Old Testament section, 126-27.
(24) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 127.
(25) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 49.
(26) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 86.
(27) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 200-01, 189; Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 671.
(28) Nasa has been read in different ways in Hosea 1:6. KJV translates, “. . . I will no more have mercy [raham] upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away [nasa]” — that is, into exile. But modern versions take nasa here as “forgive”: “. . . I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them” (NIV; compare RSV, Amplified). In Hosea 14:2, the prophet expresses the hope that the Lord will “take away” [nasa] not the people but all their iniquity.
(29) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 231, 232, 266.
(30) Stuart, 716.
(31) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 667; Vine’s, Old Testament section, 103.
(32) Vine’s, Old Testament section, 164.
(33) William Barclay, New Testament Words (1964; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1974), 276.
(34) Barclay, New Testament Words, 277-80.
(35) C.F. Hogg and W.E. Vine, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, with Notes Exegetical and Expository (1922), 340-41; qtd. in Vine’s, New Testament section, 404.
(36) C.F. Hogg and W.E. Vine, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians, with Notes Exegetical and Expository (1914), 105; qtd. in Vine’s, New Testament section, 381.
(37) Barclay, New Testament Words, 19.
(38) Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.), 2:225, 135.
(39) Barclay, New Testament Words, 21.
(40) Barclay, New Testament Words, 22.
(41) Barclay, New Testament Words, 20.
(42) See, e.g., Psalm 18:50; 25:6; 52:8; 89:2, 28; 1-3:17; Isaiah 54:8; 55:3; as well as all the references in note 5 above.
(43) Vincent, 3:412.
(44) William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 4th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1952, 1957), 763, 121.
(45) In Romans 11:22, Paul finds both “kindness and severity [apotomia]” in God. He is severe in that His word is sharp [tomos] (Hebrews 4:12) and cuts deeply. But He is not hard. He waits long and tries everything before He cuts us off.
(46) Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883, 18860, new updated edition (1993; n.p.: Hendrickson, 2012), 512.
(47) Edersheim, 360.