I believe, and have often said, that the foundational attribute of Jehovah is His holiness. Holiness underlies all the other attributes of God; they are all built on that foundation. And that is why we must “kick off our shoes” when we come into His presence. We must not approach Him as if he were our buddy or friend, but as our sovereign, holy King. Jehovah is holy in everything He does. Sin or impropriety is not impossible with the Lord. He is holy in the manifestation of His omnipotence. He is holy in permitting famine and economic prosperity – holy in plagues and in blessings. God was completely holy when He created the heaven and the earth. And He was holy when He created Hell and the Lake of Fire. He is holy when He saves one sinner, and He is holy when sends another into eternal judgment.
If holiness is the foundation of all Jehovah’s attributes, what would you say is at the pinnacle of them all? What is the capstone of His being? I might even ask, what is the most glorious aspect of the infinitely glorious God? I’m not sure that I have a right to ask such a question, but for the sake of this lesson, let’s push forward.
I trust that you are familiar with the basic outline of the Book of Exodus. If you are not let me refresh your memory. After the ten plagues and the Passover, the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea. By Exodus 19, the nation was at the foot of Sinai. “In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.” There they met their Saviour. “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up.”
From Exodus chapter 20 to chapter 32 Moses was with the Lord at the top of the mount. In the mean time, Aaron was induced to fabricate the idolatrous golden calf. “And the Lord said unto Moses, God, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” “And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand.” When he saw what Aaron and the others had done he slammed down the tables of the law, breaking them. “And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin. And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin – and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” – Exodus 32:30-33.
At that point, Moses and Jehovah had another heart to heart conversation. And that conversation eventually brings us to the scripture we read earlier – Exodus 33:12-23. Moses yearned for reassurance of the Lord’s blessings going forward. He said, “If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence.” When the Lord promised to go with the nation, Moses made another request. “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.”
Now, I confess to having problems understanding what takes place next. First, the Lord says, “Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me, and live.” And then He says, “I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by. And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts; but my face shall not be seen.” But of course, God is a Spirit and doesn’t have a face or hands, unless we are talking about the pre-incarnate Son of God. But that still contains a great deal of mystery.
And then our text brings us to a description of the actual event – the display of the glory of God. “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” Part of my difficulty this morning is clarifying in my own mind how this illustrates what God told Moses He was going to do – “thou shalt see my back parts; but my face shall not be seen.” But that is not my message. What I am most interested in is what the Lord said to His servant that day in the midst of His revelation.
When Moses said, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory,” how did Jehovah reply? It was not as it was with Elijah when standing on this same mountain 500 years later. The Lord didn’t reply with an earthquake, or fire from Heaven, or even a still small voice. And there wasn’t another burning bush for Moses to peer into, nor was there any other kind of miracle. “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”
That brings me back to my initial question: If holiness is at the root of all Jehovah’s attributes, what would you say is at the pinnacle? The acme? What is the capstone of His being? What is the most glorious aspect of the infinitely glorious God? Doesn’t the Lord answer that question for us here in this scripture?
God’s glory passed by Moses that day at the top of Mount Sinai.
“The LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.” Keep in mind that when the Lord refers to His Name – “the name of the LORD” – He is not simply talking about “El,” “Elohim” “Jehovah” or some adaptation of those names, like “El-shaddai.” He is talking about everything that the Lord is – His being, His character, His authority – everything. The Name of God is in fact a revelation of the One who bears that name. So even though we hear in the next sentence, “The LORD, The LORD God” – the words which follow that appellation describe the sort of God He is. And that is the destination to which I’d like to go this morning.
But first, pay attention to the Lord’s introduction of Himself – “The LORD, The LORD God.” I did not go to every Bible in my library, but I did look at the first four, and they all capitalized the definite article “The” – “The LORD, The LORD God.” And I like that, because I think that is exactly what the Lord was saying – I am “THE LORD,” and “there is none other beside me.” I am “The LORD,” and of course you will notice that “LORD” is fully capitalized – indicating the Hebrew word “Jehovah.” The God of Israel, the God of Moses, the God of Paul and of the New Testament saints is “Jehovah.” He is the eternal God, not only because He has no beginning or end, but because eternity is contained in Him. He is the eternal “I am.” Earlier “God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Those words “I am” is “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” “God said unto Moses, Yahweh, Yahweh, and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, Yahweh hath sent me unto you.” Then in our verse Jehovah added an addendum, “I am the LORD GOD” – “El” – a title which speaks of supremacy over His creation. Jehovah is the God of Gods. He is eternal. He is unique. He is omnipotent.
And then the Lord pronounced eight things; seven of which have one character – while the last is different. Let’s start with that last one. “And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God… and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” The God who created the universe – which included the first man…. The God who sovereignly chose Abram and called him out of Ur of the Chaldees… The God who subsequently chose Israel and miraculously brought them out of Egypt… The God who is infinitely holy – is absolutely just toward the children of Adam, the children of Abraham, the children of Israel, and everyone else. He will by no means clear the guilty simply because those guilty sinners have decided they would like to be cleared.
The word “clear” in God’s statement, is one of those Hebrew words which has been translated a number of ways. And putting all those translations together, we cannot mistake the meaning. “Clear,” “cleanse,” “free,” and “acquit.” God will not acquit the guilty. The word is also translated – leave “unpunished,” declare “guiltless” and declare “innocent.” God will not proclaim the guilty man innocent; he will not go unpunished.
Because God is who He is…. because God is holy… He cannot ignore sin in any of His creatures. The nature of God demands that sinners be judged and punished. Ezekiel 18:4 pretty well expresses that – “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Romans 6:23 – “For the wages of sin is death.” Isaiah 3:11 – “Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him: for the reward of his hands shall be given him.” James 1:15 – “When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Why is it that when sin is finished it brings death? Because that is the law of holiness, which the infinitely holy God demands and maintains. Because sin is a part of our DNA, received from our parents, we can expect to die – and after this comes the real judgement of God. That is the 8th characteristic which Jehovah mentions about Himself.
But notice the previous seven. They all bear one glorious characteristic – MERCY.
“And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” There is an almost self-contradictory verse in Psalm 33, which tells us from where God’s mercy comes. “He loveth righteousness and judgment” – God is holy and therefore loves the righteousness which demands justice and judgment. But then the verse goes on. “He loveth righteousness and judgment; the earth is full of the goodness of God.” Despite God’s holiness, the earth is full of divine goodness and mercy.
And the Bible is full of the declarations of God’s great mercy. As it is in our text, the Bible seems to shout the fact that God is merciful and gracious. “The mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting…” – Psalm 103:17. Psalm 136 is so filled with the mercy of God, it’s like a kettle of heating popcorn. “O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for his mercy endureth for ever.” In Revelation 4 John was given a glimpse of the throne room of God, and what did he see? There was the King of kings sitting on a throne which depictes His absolute sovereignty. But what was surrounding that throne? Not birds, clouds or angels. It was a rainbow. It wasn’t the LGBT rainbow, but the rainbow which followed the flood – an emblem of mercy. The scriptures more often describe God as wearing the white and holy robes of mercy than the blood-drenched robes of judgment, and I don’t ever remember Him in black robes. He more often has in His hand a golden scepter of benevolent sovereignty than an iron rod.
Something which the most hardened atheist needs to hear is that he daily feasts on Jehovah’s mercy. Psalm 145:9 – “The LORD is good to ALL: and his tender mercies are over ALL his works.” Which means, the wrath of God has not yet fallen on that sinner. Even though He hated Esau (Romans 9:13), yet God was gracious and merciful to that man, making him the father of many nations. Even though God’s wrath eventually fell upon Pharaoh, yet God’s mercy allowed him to wear the crown of Egypt for many years.
Every morning in which the murderer on death row wakes up to eat another meal, it is by the mercy of God. Someone might say, “No, it is by the grace of the legal system he has not been executed.” Actually, any time one creature is merciful to another creature, it comes distilled out of the mercy of God. The blessing that the Muslim parent is to his child in putting food on the table, flows directly from the mercy Jehovah has bestowed on that worshiper of Allah. When Paul began his Second Epistle to the Corinthians he said, “Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort.” Jehovah is the father, or perhaps the grandfather of all mercies. He is the ultimate source – the fountain head – the eternal spring of any human goodness. And that is true, even if that human goodness comes from the most rotten of all humans.
It is through mercy that the holiness of God does not execute justice upon the sinner. Let’s say that, unlike the lamp sitting on your spouse’s chair-side table, your table lamp is not working. So you replaced the bulb, but it still won’t light up. You check the two prongs on the plug and they seem to be sound. You run your hand up and down the cord – the dog hasn’t eaten through the wires. You conclude that the problem must be in the wall socket. So you get your pocket knife and stick it into the socket to see if there is any electricity. Of course, the other lamp is on the same circuit, and it is working just fine, so there is electricity. You know the rest of the story – you know what happens when you stick a metal object into an electrical outlet. Every time we sin, we are sticking our finger into the super-charged wrath of God. Every white lie, every episode of anger, every serge of jealousy, every moment of whining, is a screw driver into the holy judgment of God. That we aren’t instantly electrocuted is due to the mercy of God. Mercy grants constant reprieves for the sinner and blocks the speedy process of justice against us.
To paraphrase the old Puritan Thomas Watson, “The mercy of God sweetens all God’s other attributes.” God’s holiness without mercy – justice without His mercy – would be horrific. When the water was bitter, and Israel could not drink, Moses cast in a tree, and then the water was not only pure enough to drink – but it was probably lemon flavored. “How bitter and dreadful were the other attributes of God, did not mercy sweeten them. Mercy sets God’s power on work to help us; it makes justice become our friend; it shall avenge all quarrels which God against us.”
So far, I haven’t commented on the other words in Jehovah’s description of Himself. I have omitted them because they are all so closely related to God’s mercy, with one slight exception. “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Simply put, MERCY is that within God which keeps Him from bringing the hammer of justice down on us. Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:22 – “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.” And later Nehemiah, in talking about Israel said, “Nevertheless for thy great mercies’ sake thou didst not utterly consume them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God.” GRACE on the other hand is God’s positive blessing on that sinner. Grace and mercy are cousins; they are fraternal twins; they are the two sides of one coin. One is God’s determination not to punish, while the other is God’s determination to actually bless. We are not saved through God’s mercy, we are saved by His grace. “For by grace are ye saved through faith” – Ephesians 2:8.
And then following these, the Lord describes Himself here as “longsuffering.” The Hebrew word is sometimes translated – “patient.” It means that God is often – usually – slow in pouring out His just wrath. And the Lord is abundant in dispensing His goodness – in His kindness.
Then, in something which seems to be a bit different, He describes Himself as “abundant in TRUTH.” If you think about it – can’t you see that truth is indeed an act of mercy – a great blessing. We live in a world where outside of God’s house and the pages of His word, there is very little truth. No matter what is said on the evening news, we wonder if any of it is true. We open the Snapple bottle and read the snippet there, and someone later tells us it isn’t true. We certainly can’t fully trust anything on FaceBook. But God in His mercy and kindness tells us the truth – in His Word. “For the LORD is good; his mercy is evelasting; and his truth endureth to all generations” – Psalm 100:5.
Then the Lord adds one more thing before saying that He will not clear the guilty.
“And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious … forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Herein is the highest highlight of the mercy and grace of God. Jehovah’s holiness and justice demand the punishment and eternal death of the sinner. But God in His merciful grace made a way for the forgiveness of iniquity, transgression and sin.
Galatians 4:4 – “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” The merciful God sent His only begotten Son, His beloved Son, to meet the demands of His holiness on behalf of those He intended to save. Fifteen hundred years before the fulness of time was come, God hinted to Moses that a way of salvation was to be provided, because the Lord is gracious and merciful. And a few years after that fulness of time, Paul emphasized God’s mercy and grace to the Ephesians. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience… But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)… And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Paul, with the wisdom of Biblical truth, could see that God’s mercy and grace are as eternal as His omnipotence. Those gracious twins were a part of the nature of God, long before Moses asked to see Jehovah’s glory. In writing to Timothy Paul said, God “who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and (merciful) grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ” in these days of the fulness of time.
It is essential that we understand that God is absolutely holy – while we are absolutely corrupted by sin. But on the other hand – there is also the gospel – the good news – that God is equally merciful and gracious. He has provided a way of escape; He has made a provision of salvation. As He said to Moses – there is the mercy of forgiveness. It is in the sacrifice of His own dear son on Calvary.
Without that sacrifice, the only thing sinners like us will see is God’s “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” Because He will by no other means clear the guilty. But when He has visited His justice upon the substitutionary sacrifice, justice is met and satisfied. “In (Christ) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.”
Are you a sinner forgiven, or are you a sinner who will soon be visited by the punishment your iniquities deserve? Oh, come to the Saviour in repentance and faith. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” from the visitation of God’s holy wrath upon sinners.