God of Mercy and Judgment
By Thomas Thorne
In last month’s article, we started to examine the second commandment from Exodus 20:4-6, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (ESV).” We showed that God being “jealous” comes from the Hebrew ka-na and refers to God having great energy and enthusiasm in pursuit of the righteous behavior and salvation of His people.
The next part of this verse, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” also has posed a question for some. At first glance, this sentence sounds kind of harsh and in contradiction with other passages in the Bible. For instance, Ezekiel 18:20 clearly states, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself (ESV).”
So what is meant by “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation?” Are these two sets of verses in contradiction with each other? Over the next two articles, we will examine this phrase to see if we can gain a little more understanding of these seemingly contradictory verses.
Exodus 34:5-7 is one of the remarkable passages in the Old Testament where the LORD shows His glory and proclaims the name “the LORD/YHVH.” This set of verses has very similar wording regarding “visiting the iniquity of the fathers…” Before we examine this phrase, let’s review its precursor Exodus 34:5-7.
“The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him [Moses] there and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (ESV).
Let’s examine some key points in this verse:
- First, the Hebrew for “the name of the LORD” is “B’shem YHVH.” The word shem, translated as “name” is referring to His reputation and authority as well as what He is called.
- The words in these verses are the LORD’s/YHVH’s revelation of His character. His character defines His relationship with His people. Yes, that included 15th century B.C. Israel but it also includes 21st-century believers in Jesus as well as those in between.
- The Hebrew word for mercy in verse 6 is This word refers to deep mercy and compassion that is similar to a mother’s gentle love for her children.
- The word gracious, hanun, according to Hebrew scholars and authors Practico and Van Pelt1 is only used in reference to God and in most cases, it appears in combination with the word rahum (mercy). This is a degree of graciousness and compassion beyond human ability.
- Grace is that aspect of God’s character that gives what is not deserved, whereas mercy withholds what is deserved. God, in His great grace, gives us redemption. He buys us back from sin, the ways of this world, and the deceiver, even though we don’t deserve it. He saves us, even though we deserve the opposite.
- The term for “slow to anger” – erek afyim – is a Hebrew idiom for “longsuffering” “patient” or “slow to anger.” This is referring to God’s remarkable and outstanding patience. His patience is demonstrated principally concerning His mercy.
- Abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. The Hebrew words are chesed and emeth. God’s steadfast love (chesed) is a divine love that is forgiving, redeeming, and relentless in pursuit of those to whom it is to be given. God wants to and is willing to forgive everyone. God’s truthfulness and faithfulness (emeth) carry with them the certainty that the divine attributes of this self-revelation will last forever. They will never fail.
Let’s review the descriptive phrases in these verses: merciful, gracious/compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (KJV-abundant in goodness and truth), keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, forgiving transgressions, and forgiving sins; yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished, and the results of sin may be felt until the fourth generation. Pause and think about what we have just covered. God is a God of mercy, and He is also a God of judgment.
By the way, I count, I add up to nine phrases related to mercy and forgiveness and only two related to judgment. Although, these last two, those that appear to be related to judgment, can also be considered acts of divine compassion. For example, God does not leave the guilty unpunished. To have a stable and safe society the guilty cannot be left free to do whatever they please. Being corrected is necessary for a person to realize his or her mistakes. If a person doesn’t realize right from wrong, the chances are he or she may never mend his or her ways.
The holiness and justice of God are part of His goodness and love toward all of His creation. God does not allow sin to dwell within His camps. This is an act of kindness.
Now consider the phrase, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” This will be explored further in next month’s article.
- Gary Pratico & Miles Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007, 335.
- My apologies, in last month’s article I accidentally called Exodus 20:4-6 the third commandment. It is the second commandment.
Tom Thorne and his wife (Amy) moved to Marion from Denver, NC almost a year and a half ago. Thomas and Amy are fellowship leaders of a small congregation of Believers called “Servants of the Most High God.” Tom can be reached at email@example.com
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