The Lovingkindness of God Leads to… Disobedience?

One of the most powerful passages in the Old Testament, or even the Bible for that matter, is found in Exodus 34:6–7. In this passage the Lord gives self-revelation about His own glorious character.

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.”

Amazingly, this self-revelation comes after Israel’s horrific covenant treachery of making the golden calf. Israel had just shown themselves to be covenant defectors. In response, Moses was seeking affirmation from God that He would not abandon Israel (Exod 33:15–16). Exodus 34:6–7 is God’s answer to Moses’s prayer (Exod 33:18).

God’s self-revelation is completely thrilling to read. God reveals himself as Yahweh, the personal and covenant God of Israel. He describes himself as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth. This description of God becomes the foundation for Israel’s expectation of God’s goodness and is referred to often in the Old Testament. For example, after proclaiming the Lord’s forgiveness and kindness, David quotes this passage in Psalm 103:8. David knows God’s goodness and kindness, and he knows it because that is Who God has revealed himself to be.

Interestingly, Exodus 34:6 does not always motivate the characters of Scripture to worship and revere God. In fact, the story of Jonah tells a different tale.

Most people are familiar with the tale of Jonah. Jonah is commanded to go deliver a message (of judgment) to the people of Assyria (Nineveh is the capital of Assyria). It would seem that Jonah would be absolutely delighted to deliver a message of judgment against the city of Nineveh, since the Assyrian people had plagued Israel for many years. However, Jonah does the unthinkable and runs away from God and even attempts to die!

Yet God arranges an instructive lesson on fishing for Jonah, and reissues His command for Jonah to go proclaim His message to Nineveh. So, Jonah goes and proclaims this message: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4b). Because of this message of impending judgment, Nineveh repents from their sins and God refrains from bringing judgment upon that generation because of their repentance (Jonah 3:10).

The fourth chapter of Jonah is so interesting. The reader gets a close up view of Jonah—who is furious that God decided to spare the Assyrians. Jonah’s complaint to God is essentially this: “I knew this would happen! That’s why I didn’t want to come.” Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented, God would pardon them. Jonah gives his thinking as follows: “For I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2b).  Jonah quotes Exodus 34:6, knowing that God delights in forgiveness. Jonah didn’t want the Assyrians to have a chance to repent and experience the compassion of God.

On an individual level, the story of Jonah shows how one can apply the proper meaning of Scripture wrongly. Because Jonah knew the truth about God’s character, he tried to prevent the Assyrians having access to this gracious and compassionate God. However, on the biblical-theological level, the book of Jonah functions to show that God is not just the gracious God of Israel, but He loves and cares for the Gentiles as well. The foundation of God’s self-revealed character does not just give Israel hope in salvation, but that same hope also belongs to the Gentiles. Although Jonah tried to run away to prevent God’s compassion and mercy, the whole episode ended up making a very powerful point—God also cares for the Gentiles.

Peter Goeman
Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.
  • Paul Parido

    I believe that Jonah was thinking what I was thinking when I was saved… How could a horrible sinner as I am be given a wonderful truth such as Exodus 34 of the true God revealing Himself to me? I am but humbled at the fact that God desires to make Himself known to me and it is such a privilege to know Him better daily through His word. I will forever be in awe of what God has done for me through Christ and the act that I dont deserve it.

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