Untangling the Knots

Posted: November 6, 2014 / Written by: Pastor Bruce Garner

Psalm 103 is a poet’s and songwriter’s look back at the exodus. The psalmist tells the people of Israel that they can have confidence in God’s love for them by remembering what God revealed about Himself by what He did then and what He said.

They had come to a low point in the early part of their journey. They had come out from the most powerful military nation of the time. God miraculously provided both food and water. The Egyptians loaded them with valuables. God healed them, and to top it off, He Himself came with them! He met personally with them and spoke with them at Sinai. Yet when Moses did not come down from the mountain when they expected him, they decided to make themselves a god—a golden calf. That did not go over well with the Lord. When Moses descended, he called the people to account and demanded that they declare their allegiance to him and the Lord. The people split along tribal lines with only Moses’ tribe standing with him and 3000 people died in the aftermath. It was not pretty.

knots2Putting aside His own anger and disappointment with the people, Moses boldly interceded with God on their behalf. God had said that he would not continue go with them lest He consume them, but Moses tells God that he will not go unless He goes with them. Amazingly, God listens to Moses and says He will go with them. Not finished yet, Moses has a request, “Show me Your glory.”

Glory literally means “weight or substance.” When Moses asks to see His glory, he is asking about God’s substance, what makes Him tick. He wants to know what motivates God to do what He does. Moses wants to know more than just what God does, He wants to know why He does things. He wants to be on the inside.

When God answers (Ex 33:19), He reveals three things about Himself.

• He says “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” This is His innate goodness towards humanity.

• He says, “I will proclaim before you My Name, ‘The Lord.’” This is God’s innate freedom to act.

• He says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” This is God’s innate compassion.

What does God reveal about Himself? What is His “bottom line”? God is good, He is free, and He is gracious and merciful!

Grace and mercy are always free acts of God’s goodness. We cannot deserve them. Grace and mercy have nothing to do with fairness or merit or earning. They are gifts. God is gracious and merciful because that is Who He is.

After revealing His goodness, freedom, and grace, the Lord promises that He will pass by, and make His glory known. When he does so, He speaks to Moses:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:6-7 (NASB)

This passage is often understood to mean that the merciful God punishes sins generations down the line, but that interpretation needs some examination. The passage is similar to Exodus 20:5-6 dealing with the consequences of idolatry.

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. Ex 20:5-6

In this Ex 20 passage, the “visiting” happens to “those who hate me,” but in Exodus 34 the reference to “hate” is absent. In both passages the word for “visiting” refers to the action of a superior dealing with a subordinate. Thecontext determines whether the action taken by the superior is positive or negative, whether it is to punish or to encourage. In Exodus 20 the “those who hate me” phrase makes it clear that the “visiting” is for punishment. However, in Ex 34 the words “the guilty” are not present in the original text! Translators often supply words not present in the original text to provide clarity. (The NASB indicates this by placing them in italics.) In this case the translators obviously have thought that the phrase “the guilty” is needed. But are they? Without the phrase “the guilty” there is no reason to suppose that the action to be taken in Exodus 34 is negative, especially since the word translated “unpunished” can just as easily mean “not dealt with.” This gives an entirely different tone to the Exodus 34 passage. It could very well mean that God will not leave the issues unaddressed rather than punish.

The Exodus 34 passage is often quoted or referenced in later passages. One significant example is Psalm 103 in which the inspired psalmist says nothing about punishment, but says that God does not deal with us according to our sins! When the psalmist reflects upon those days, He writes this:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.

The Lord performs righteous deeds
And judgments for all who are oppressed.
He made known His ways to Moses,
His acts to the sons of Israel.
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 Just as a father has compassion on his children,
So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.
14 For He Himself knows our frame;
He is mindful that we are but dust.

15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 When the wind has passed over it, it is no more,
And its place acknowledges it no longer.
17 But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him,
And His]righteousness to children’s children,
18 To those who keep His covenant
And remember His precepts to do them.

19 The Lord has established His throne in the heavens,
And His sovereignty rules over all.
20 Bless the Lord, you His angels,
Mighty in strength, who perform His word,
Obeying the voice of His word!
21 Bless the Lord, all you His hosts,
You who serve Him, doing His will.
22 Bless the Lord, all you works of His,
In all places of His dominion;
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

The first six verses celebrate the goodness of God and His healing, forgiveness, provision, help and compassion. Verse seven makes explicit reference to the intercession of Moses when he appeals to God desiring to know His ways. (Ex. 33:13) The next verse is almost a direct quote of Ex. 34:6, but it continues to say that God will not deal with us according to our sins and iniquities! The psalmist makes no mention of punishment for the offenders or their descendants. Instead, the psalm promises forgiveness and compassion for those who fear Him and righteousness to the grandchildren of His covenant partners.

knots1So Psalm 103 looks back to the Exodus events and concludes that God removes sin and iniquity and deals with those who fear Him according to His mercy. By looking through the lens of the inspired psalmist, we can see that there is no reason in the text to add “the guilty” to the Exodus 34 verse. Because “those who hate me” are not in view here as they are in Exodus 20, and because there is no reason to add the phrase “the guilty,” the phrase “by no means leave unpunished” can be read to say “by no means leave undealt with.” A better way to understand this verse would be“He will by no means ignore iniquity, but will continue to administer the undoing of its effects through the fourth generation.” That is, God does not ignore the consequences of sin that has been forgiven, but He will continue to untie, unbind, and unfasten its effects for four generations!

This is steadfast love, what the psalmist calls lovingkindness, love that does not quit. Moses said it lasted to a thousand generations. The psalmist interpreted that as “from everlasting to everlasting.” God does not give up on those who follow Him.

Whatever hole we have dug for ourselves, whatever rut that we are stuck in, whatever mess we have created, the Lord promises to keep untangling it until it is made right, even if it takes four generations. The only response we can have to this kind of love is to bless the Lord, with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength.