John Piper discusses Exodus 34 in a sermon, “The Lord, a God Merciful and Gracious”
The sheer fact that Exodus 34 exists is proof that God is a God of mercy. This is the second time God has met Moses on the mountain to make a covenant with the people of Israel. When Moses came down from the mountain the first time, the people had fallen in love with the works of their own hands. They were worshiping a golden calf.
But let me describe one way to see their relationships with each other.
Picture a triangle: at either side of the base are the first and last statements about God, namely, that he is merciful and gracious (on the left side of the base) and that he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin (on the right side of the base).
Then, half way up the sides of the triangle on either side, picture the second and fourth statements about God, namely, that he is slow to anger (on the left side) and that he keeps steadfast love for thousands (on the right side of the triangle).
Finally, picture at the top of the triangle in the middle the third statement about God, namely, that he is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Now the point of this picture is to suggest that the first and last statements go together and the second and fourth go together and the third is central to all five. Let’s start with the center and top of the triangle.
Abounding in Steadfast Love and Faithfulness
God abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness. Two images come to my mind. The heart of God is like an inexhaustible spring of water that bubbles up love and faithfulness at the top of the mountain. Or the heart of God is like a volcano that burns so hot with love that it blasts the top off the mountain and flows year after year with the lava of love and faithfulness.
When God uses the word “abounding,” he wants us to understand that the resources of his love are not limited. In a way, he’s like the Federal government: Whenever there’s a need, he can just print more money to cover it. But the difference is that God has an infinite treasury of golden love to cover all the currency he prints. The U.S. government is in a dream world. God banks very realistically on the infinite resources of his deity.
I said earlier that there is a connection between the first three sermons in this series and this one. God is who he is , and God is free , God is almighty , and now God is merciful. The connection is that the absolute existence, the sovereign freedom, and the omnipotence of God are the volcanic fullness that explodes in an overflow of love.
The sheer magnificence of God means that he does not need us to fill up any deficiency in himself. Instead his infinite self-sufficiency spills over in love to us who need him. We can bank on his love precisely because we believe in the absoluteness of his existence, the sovereignty of his freedom, and the limitlessness of his power.
So at the top of the triangle stands the infinite abundance of God’s love, spilling over down each side for the good of his repentant people.
Slow to Anger, Keeping Steadfast Love
In the middle of each side are the second and fourth statements about God in Exodus 34:6–7. He is slow to anger, and he keeps steadfast love for thousands. When God says that he keeps steadfast love, the focus is on the durableness of his love. It lasts. It perseveres. It keeps on flowing.
And I see a connection between that perseverance of God’s love and the statement that God is slow to anger. Love cannot last where anger has a hair trigger. If God’s anger had a hair trigger, his love would not last one day in my life. If rockets of wrath shot out from God’s eyes every time I sinned, I would be blown to smithereens before I got out of bed in the morning.
But he shouts on Mount Sinai, “I am slow to anger!” He holds back his wrath by the reigns of his love. He is long-suffering. He is extraordinarily patient. And so he keeps steadfast love. He guards it and preserves it by being slow to anger.
Merciful and Forgiving
This leads us to the final pair of statements about God at the base of the triangle. If God is slow to anger even though we give him ample reason to be angry with us because of our sin, then he must be very merciful and forgiving—”merciful and gracious—forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” The reason God is slow to anger is not that he doesn’t notice our sin but that he forgives it.
And not just some kinds of sin. For those of you who feel that there is a category of sin that is beyond God’s forgiveness please submit your own opinion and feeling to the Word of God. The reason God used all three Hebrew words for sin here is to show that all sorts and degrees of sin are forgivable. He forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. He piles them up to make plain what he means. There are no categories of unforgivable sins. The only sin that is unforgivable is the sin that is unrepentable. If you can repent and turn from your sin, you can be forgiven.
Jesus Christ Confirms God’s Merciful Nature
I close with this reminder and invitation. Jesus Christ came into the world to confirm that God is just who he said he was on Mount Sinai—”a God merciful and gracious slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Turn from your sin this morning, trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, and you will find a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.
If somebody demands of you (or perhaps you demand of yourself): How do you know that’s the way God is? you can answer, because Jesus Christ lived it and sealed it with his blood.