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The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God

"'Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed His name, the Lord. And He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.'"
Exodus 34:5-7 (NIV)

This is the most wonderful passage in the Bible as here God is describing and revealing Himself to Moses, the one person in the Bible to whom God spoke "face to face." [1] Let us examine each word used, trace the Hebrew and Greek backgrounds, and look at the different English words used in other versions: i) the Lord; ii) compassionate God; iii) gracious God; iv) slow to anger; v) abounding in love and faithfulness; vi) forgiving; vii) punishing the guilty.

1. The Lord

This is the English translation of God's special covenant Name with Israel: the Hebrew YHWH, or Yahweh or Jehovah. When God commissioned Moses to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt, He declared His name as I AM. [2] YHWH (I AM) comes from the verb “to be” and includes all three tenses of the verb.
Thus it actually means 'I was, I am and I will be.' But God also said, "Yahweh, the God (Elohim) of your fathers ..." [3] Yahweh is therefore a proper noun and presents God as a Person, bringing Him into relationship with human beings. Thus, because Yahweh reveals Himself to man, the name means 'I have manifested, do manifest, and will yet manifest myself.'

2. Compassionate God

The general word for God is used here (El or Elohim). This can refer to any god, true or false, therefore it is usually connected with one of God's attributes when it refers to Him. God chose these two attributes: compassion and grace.


Two Hebrew words are usually translated as 'compassion' (or 'mercy' in some versions): i) Hāmal, expresses compassion as a response to need; ii) Rāham, expresses compassion as a response of love.

Hāmal indicates that compassion one feels which results in action to relieve a need in others. It refers to divine as well as human emotions, eg. Pharaoh's daughter was moved by hāmal when she saw the baby Moses in his basket and took him home. [4] One of the most comforting statements about God is that "our God is full of compassion." [5] Even when we are being disciplined and we feel that God simply doesn't care, we are assured that "I will spare them ... in compassion ..." [6]

Rāham means 'to love deeply' and therefore 'to be compassionate' or 'to have mercy.' It expresses the love of a superior to an inferior; it is 'unmerited favour' in that the merit of the person who receives the aid is not considered. It indicates the depth of the relationship God has with His children, [7] but it also reflects His sovereign choice: "I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." [8]

In the New Testament the Greek word oiktirmos expresses pity at the sight of another's suffering. In the NIV and the NASB it is translated either "mercy" [9] or "compassion." [10] God compassionately cares about what happens to us; we are to imitate Him [11] and let His kind of caring bind believers together. [12]


The Greek word splanchnizomai originally indicated the inner parts of the body and suggested the seat of the emotions. It came to express especially pity, compassion and love. It is often used in the Gospels to describe the compassion Jesus felt for people in need, and usually caused Him to step in and change the course of their lives. [13] We are called upon to follow Jesus' example and have the same active compassion on others.

3. Gracious God

The root of grace is found in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew word hānan, 'to be gracious', 'to be merciful'. It expresses the compassionate response of one who is able to help another person in need, regardless of the merit of the seeker. Thus David appeals to God for forgiveness: "Have mercy (hānan) on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions." [14] David acknowledges his own helplessness, and looks to God's own nature as the basis on which help is expected. The Psalms give other instances of the weaknesses that cause those who love God to cry out to Him for help: distress, [15] persecution, [16] loneliness, [17] disaster, [18] and trouble. [19]

In the New Testament the Greek word for 'grace' is charis, meaning gracious favour or kindness. Jesus shows that God stoops down to help the undeserving and pardons the helpless sinner. [20] But these actions are not termed grace in the Gospels. In Acts, 'grace' is used to indicate the visible expression of God's power in action which marked His presence in the early church.

The apostle Paul, in keeping with Jesus' teaching, used the word 'grace' to communicate the truth behind God's saving work in Jesus. To Paul, grace is a transforming reality; it transforms our present and eternal destiny. We are all lost sinners, enslaved to the wicked world and its ways, unable to escape or to please God. He, by His grace and through His mercy and love, has reached down to us in our need, and provided salvation for us through Christ's death on the cross. By faith in Christ and through God's grace we are redeemed and pronounced righteous in His sight. Now we may boldly approach God's throne of grace, and humbly ask for the life of Jesus to be manifested in us by the Holy Spirit. Thus we are transformed into His image in our present reality so that our eternal destiny is with God. [21]

"But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life." [22]

4. Slow to anger

The Hebrew word ārēk, meaning 'long' or 'slow' to anger, is also translated as 'longsuffering', 'forbearance' or 'patience'. Biblical patience is a God-given restraint when dealing with opposition or oppression; it is not passivity; it is motivated by God's love.

Such patience is characteristic of God's dealings with sinful men, who deserve His wrath; [23] of His protecting mark on the murderer Cain; [24] of His providential rainbow sign to a lost world; [25] of His many restorations of disobedient Israel; [26] of His repeated pleadings with Jerusalem; [27] of His deferment of Christ's second coming. [28]

In the New Testament the Greek word makrothymia means exactly the same, and Christians are to have the same patience with others.[29] Christians must also show this patience in the face of afflictions and trials of the present age. [30] God by His grace gives such Christlike patience [31] and Jesus is our example of it. [32] He who thus endures to the end, will by his patience gain his soul. [33]

5. Abounding in love and faithfulness

a Abound
In the Old as well as the New Testament, wherever the word 'abound' occurs, it portrays an overflowing abundance. The OT emphasis is on the character of God. He is "abounding in love" to all who call on Him. [34] As in our text, God is often described as "slow to anger" and "abounding in love." [35] We need to grasp that God is hesitant to be angry, but eager to love.

The Greek term perisseuō is translated as 'overflow' everywhere it is used in the NT Epistles. [36] As we experience God's overflowing love He will work in us, so that we also will have a growing love for others that abounds more and more. [37]

b Love
The most common Hebrew word for 'love' in the OT is āhēb, which varies in intensity with its subject and its object. It is the word used to exhort love for neighbour [38] but it can also be used of love for food [39] or wealth. [40] When used of God's love, the character of God infuses it with intensity and stability: God says "I have loved you with an everlasting love." [41] Āhēb is given as God's motive for the choice and continuing commitment to Israel. [42] The prophets sense the mark of God's love in every event of Israel's history. [43]

Hesed is another Hebrew word translated as 'love' or 'kindness' or 'goodness.' It is used to express divine attitudes and actions, and especially His commitment to His redeemed people: "From everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear Him." [44] God's deep love (āhēb) moved Him to establish covenants with man, but once established, His commitment and constancy went beyond the obligations of the covenant. This is expressed by the word hesed, which is the word used for both occurrences of the word 'love' in our text ('abounding in love' and 'maintaining love')

In the Psalms, hesed is associated with deliverance from enemies, [45] with protection, [46] and with forgiveness. [47] In hesed God is sensitive to our sufferings, [48] answers prayers, [49] and remains slow to anger. [50] In love God provides redemption, [51] and remains committed to fulfill His purpose for us. [52]

Hesed is only once used of man's love for God, all the other times āhēb is used. Clearly stated throughout the OT is that man's love for God is demonstrated through obedience: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts." [53] Moses later adds: "And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart ... and to observe the Lord's commands and decrees ... [54] This link between love and obedience is seen throughout the OT. [55]

This same link between love and obedience is also demonstrated in the NT. Jesus explained to His disciples: "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me." [56] See my article "The Greek words for love in the New Testament."

c Faithfulness
This is one of the OT's great theological terms. The root is 'āman which in its different stems and derivatives can also be translated as 'confirmation', 'to be established', 'to be certain', 'to believe in' and 'truth'. The OT often uses this word as an attribute of God, to express the total dependability of His character or promises. In our text God is abounding or overflowing with faithfulness. Many other passages apply this term to God, His words or works. [57]

Pistos is the Greek word from the NT's belief/faith word group. It is most often used in its passive form and portrays God as 'trustworthy, reliable, faithful'. Because God is faithful He can be trusted completely to carry out His commitments to us in Christ. [58] In its active sense it means 'trusting, believing'. Because God is so faithful, we should have no trouble trusting and believing in Him.

6. Forgiving

God is holy and man is sinful, therefore the only way that man can be justified in His sight is for God to act in such a way that man's sin is removed. The Hebrew word kāpar means 'atonement' and suggests the removal of sin through sacrifice. The word nāsā means 'to take up' or 'to take away.' Forgiveness is possible because God acts to take away the sin that makes us guilty. Thus God releases us from guilt and punishment. The word sālah means 'to forgive or pardon.' It is only used of the divine offer of forgiveness, but this invitation is extended to all. [59] Moses prays for the forgiveness of Israel, "in accordance with your great love." [60] Throughout the OT there is praise for God's nature as a forgiving Person. [61]

In the NT three Greek words are translated as 'forgive': Charizomai means 'to be gracious' or 'to give freely.'Paul urged us to be gracious to repentant brothers [62] and to forgive as the Lord forgave us. [63]Aphiemi means 'forgive' or 'dismiss, abandon.' God does not deal with our guilt; He deals with our sins by removing them. Aphesis expresses forgiveness or 'remission' of sins. The early church preached that only Jesus is able "to give repentance and forgiveness of sins." [64] Paul stresses that we obtain forgiveness only through the death of Jesus: "We have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins ..." [65]

The OT links God's forgiveness with sacrifices of atonement; the NT relates it to the sacrificial death of Jesus. The basis on which God can forgive sin and remain righteous has been provided by Jesus' death on the cross as an atonement for sin. OT sacrifices could only point to this ultimate sacrifice.

7. Punishing the guilty

This phrase is also translated as 'by no means clearing the guilty.' (NKJV) The Hebrew word 'āsam, "to be guilty," and its many derivatives, explains the OT concept of guilt, with its three distinct aspects: i) an act that brings guilt, ii) the condition of guilt, and iii) the appropriate punishment. The stress in different verses may be on any one of these aspects, but the biblical concept of guilt always includes these elements.

All sin is an offense against God, and so guilt can only be understood in relation to God. Our feelings of guilt are not important; rather, we must accept that we are responsible for our actions, and suffer the consequences. Fortunately for us, God has acted to deal with our sin and guilt, so that we may escape the consequences.

In the NT 'guilt' is a judicial concept, i.e. the guilty person has a criminal responsibility, whether the court is human or divine. In the Gospels and Acts, the Greek word group based on aitia is used of the accusations against Jesus and Paul. The word enochos assumes the person's conviction and liabiblity for punishment. [66] A feeling of guilt is not part of the biblical concept of guilt (despite poor translations made by the NIV of Hebrews 10:2,22) but rather an awareness of sin.

God does not emphasize our failure and guilt; rather He brings us a unique message of the hope of forgiveness through the sacrificial death of Jesus. Therefore, "who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies." [67]


1. Numbers 12:8
2. Exodus 3:14
3. Exodus 3:15
4. Exodus 2:6
5. Psalms 116:5
6. Malachi 3:17
7. Psalms 103:13; Micah 7:19
8. Exodus 33:19
9. Romans 12:1
10. 2 Corinthians 1:3
11. Luke 6:36
12. Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12
13. Eg. Matthew 9:36; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13
14. Psalm 51:1
15. Psalm 4:1
16. Psalm 9:13
17. Psalm 25:16
18. Psalm 57:1
19. Psalm 86:16
20. eg. Matthew 11:28-12:13; 18:21-34; Luke 7:36-50
21. Romans 3: 19-26; Ephesians 2:1-10; Hebrews 4:16
22. Romans 6:22
23. Isaiah 48:9; Hosea 11:8
24. Genesis 4:15
25. Genesis 9:11-17
26. Hosea 11:8-9
27. Mark 12:1-11; Luke 13:1-9
28. 2 Peter 3:9
29. Matthew 18:26,29; 1 Corinthians 13:4; Galations 5:22
30. Romans 5:3; 1 Corinthians 13:7; James 1:3; 5:7-11
31. Romans 15:5; 2 Thessalonians 3:5
32. Hebrews 12:1-3
33. Mark 13:13; Luke 21:19; Revelation3:10
34. Psalm 86:5
35. Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2
36. Romans 5:15; Colossians 2:7; 1 Thessalonians 3:12
37. Philippians 1:9
38. Leviticus 19:18
39. Genesis 27:4
40. Ecclesiastics 5:9
41. Jeremiah 31:3
42. Deuteronomy 4:37-38
43. Hosea 11:1; Malachi 1:2-3
44. Psalm 103:17
45. Psalm 6:4; 17:7; 44:26
46. Psalm 21:7; 32:10
47. Psalm 25:7; 51:1
48. Psalm 31:7
49. Psalm 66:20
50. Psalm 86:15; 103:8
51. Psalm 130:7
52. Psalm 138:8
53. Deuteronomy 6:5-6
54. Deuteronomy 10:12-13
55. Deuteronomy 30:16-20; Joshua 22:5; Psalm 119:113,119,127
56. John 14:21
57. 1 Samuel 26:23; Psalm 33:4; Isaiah 11:5; Hosea 2:20
58. 1 Corinthians 1:9; Hebrews 2:17; 1 Peter 4:19; 1 John 1:9
59. Isaiah 55:6-7
60. Numbers 14:19
61. Exodus 34:7; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 99:8; Daniel 9:9
62. 2 Corinthians 2:7-10
63. Colossians 3:13
64. Acts 5:31
65. Ephesians 1:7
66. Matthew 5:22; 1 Corinthians 11:27; James 2:10
67. Romans 8:33


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Posted in: Bible by on March 26, 2011 @ 11:46 pm

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