The second chance covenant. Exodus 34:1-14
Read: Exodus 34:1-14
From the low point of the incidents surrounding the making of the Golden Calf, a time so dangerous to the life of this new nation that merely surviving it is a feat of God’s grace over mans rebellion, our exploration of Exodus now comes to one of the high points of the story. The renewal of the covenant and the next revelation of God to Moses.
Chapter 34 forms the last chapter of this particular part of the historical narrative, demonstrating a number of strong literary links to chapters 32 and 33, which in turn follow on from Chapter 24 in the historical sequence of events. Infact, although the text is broken at start of Chapter 34 and headed ‘The new stone tablets’ – there is really no such break, and the events that conclude in Chapter 34 really begin in Chapter 33:12.
It might be worth re-reading the text, beginning at 33:12, as this allows for the immediate context of the verses to be set.
So what’s happening?
In our text for this week, having come through the Golden Calf incident, Moses petitions God and asks for a demonstration of his presence and some reassurance that his presence will remain with both himself (Moses) and his people. God acquiesces to Moses request and demonstrates his ‘Glory’ to him in the most profound and powerful revelation of his presence so far. In the context of this part of the story, the word used for ‘glory’, means quite literally ‘face’, which helps us to make sense of 33:20.
From this encounter of the intimate and personal presence of Yahweh, Moses receives his instructions. God tells Moses to re-craft two stone tablets on which he will then re-inscribe his covenant law. The covenant, so quickly abandoned by the Hebrews will be renewed.
Having made clear these practical instructions, Yahweh then speaks to Moses and says:
“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.”
Before we go on to think in some detail about this proclamation, it is worth taking some time to prayerfully reflect on it as a group. What most strikes you about these words? What is your response to them?
These words spoken by Yahweh to Moses, which became one of the most ancient confessions of faith in scripture, are also some of the most famous words in scripture and an often recited description of the Lord. In fact versions of this statement can be found in 8 other places in the Old Testament:
Psalms 86:15, 103:8, 145:8
That Yahweh reveals himself in such a way is both interesting and important. Moses, in his very first request that God reveal himself (Exodus ch3), is answered with a revelation of God’s name. In this second request to God that he reveal himself the answer is a revelation of Gods character. This second response, as well as explaining the divine name, also prepares Moses and in turn Israel, for the renewing of the covenant relationship. In revealing his character Yahweh reminds Israel that ‘he is who he is’ and ‘will be who he will be’ and that he will not accommodate his nature to the requests and vagaries of his peoples commitment. He underlines the wonderful reality that he is willing to give himself to his people, but that they must take him exactly as he is. He will not compromise.
As a group spend some time praying over this revelation of Gods character. In particular, looking at the first half of the revelation (v6-7a – we’ll look at 7b later) spend some time praying for each other, that the reality of Gods character expressed in these verses would be something that we know deeply in both heart and mind:
God is: Gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to many, and forgiving wickedness.
The English Non-conformist bible commentator and minister Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714) says this about the proclamation of God made to Moses:
“…he makes himself known in the glory of his grace, and goodness… …He is merciful. This speaks of his tender compassion, like that of a father to his children. He is gracious. This speaks of kindness…and says that he has a compassion towards his creatures and a desire to do good towards them. He is slow to anger (long-suffering). This is a branch of Gods goodness which the sin of mankind necessitates. He delays the execution of his justice, he waits in order to be gracious. He abounds in love and faithfulness. This speaks of plentiful goodness which is above our expectation and deserving. The springs of mercy are always full, the streams of mercy always flowing. …It speaks of promised goodness, it binds him to mercy.”
It is a long quote (translated by myself into modern English so not verbatim) but it’s a beautiful description and summary of what God reveals of himself.
Do you know this to be true in your life of faith? If so, thank God for it. If you’d like to know this reality in an ever increasing depth, ask your housegroup to pray for you.
The second bit…
The first half of the revelation is great. Easy to stomach, very palatable, and really rather nice. The sort of bible verses that we get all romantic over. The second half of the revelation is a little more difficult however.
In it the confession reads: “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.”
We’re quite familiar and probably relaxed about the idea of God not letting the guilty get off without justice being done…but punishing subsequent generations for the sins of those who have come before them…well that hardly seems fair and just. So what are we to make of this?
Most commentators agree that the form of words presented in Exodus is a poetic form and so seeks to share meaning through the words used and also the form that the words are assembled in. And so, when we read of Gods anger being visited on the children of those who sin, to the third and fourth generations, we are not to read this as literally meaning that a Great, Great, Grandchild could be punished for the sin of his or her Great, Great, Grandfather. Instead, taken in the context of the earlier assertion that God shows his mercy to thousands (of generations), we are to read a poetic device which seeks to make the point that Gods desire to show mercy far outweighs his desire to punish. Of course, that said, we are left in no doubt by this passage that those who do sin will be held to account by God and will face his judgment and justice.
It’s tempting to think of others when reflecting on ‘sinners’! It’s also tempting to think of ourselves as being without the sin that pervaded the life of Israel. But to do so is naïve. The reality of our lives is that we are subject to and tainted by sin as much as any that have gone before us. As Gods covenant people, that we sin is all the more tragic. Like the Israelites we manage to rebel despite all that God has done for us. And yet, in the face of this sin, as covenant people, God offers us his mercy and grace – if only we will acknowledge our need of it and respond in humble repentance.
The covenant restored
Demonstrating that Gods self revelation is indeed true we read on in chapter 34 that the covenant between God and the Hebrews is renewed. It’s important to note that he covenant renewal is at the initiative of God – he is the one who is able to set and re-set the terms of his special relationship with Israel, and he is the one who can renew it when broken. Israel is powerless to re-establish the covenant relationship, but her God abounds in mercy and offers another chance.
In closing why not spend some time in confession and prayer, either as a group or individually. You might like to use these words of confession:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
We have sinned against you
And against our neighbour
In thought and word and deed,
Through negligence, through weakness,
Through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorry
And repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
Who died for us,
Forgive us all that is past
And grant that we may serve you in newness of life
To the glory of your name
Then re-read these words as a group:
“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.”
Then read these words together:
May Almighty God
Who forgives all who truly repent
Have mercy upon us
Pardon and deliver us from all our sins
Confirm and strengthen us in all goodness
And keep us in life eternal
Through Jesus Christ our Lord