MORAL ATTRIBUTES of GOD (Part 2)
We are continuing with our series on The Attributes of God this month and today we are talking about God’s most distinguishable and popular moral attributes - His Mercy, His Grace and Patience. But before we discuss further, let's review this video clip from the Bible Project.
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…” - Exodus 34:6
GOD’S MERCY, PATIENCE and GRACE in the OLD TESTAMENT
As mentioned in that clip these attributes of God are the most repeated and mentioned attributes in the Old Testament. Take a look at these instances:
16 “But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. 17 They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them..."
Psalm 86:15 (David)
But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
12 “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
These Attributes of God is so embedded in the psyche/consciousness of the Israelites that it has been repeated again and again and again in the Bible. The Bible shows us that all of God’s actions are an expression of these attributes: compassion, grace, patience, loyal love, and faithfulness.
So let’s explore each one of these attributes:
1. Mercy (Compassion)
The first word used in this description of God is compassionate, or in Hebrew, rakhum. This word also appears as a noun, rakhamim, or compassion. And what’s really fascinating is that both of these words are related to the Hebrew word for womb, rekhem.
A HUMAN EXAMPLE
Compassion in the Hebrew Bible is centred in a person’s core, and the word invites us to imagine a mother’s tender feelings for her vulnerable infant. So rakhum is a word that conveys intense emotion. Sometimes it’s even translated as “deeply moved,” like in the story of King Solomon who meets two women who have just given birth. (1 Kings 3:16-28)
One of their babies sadly dies, but then both women claim that the baby still living is theirs. So as a test, Solomon says to cut the baby in two and give each mother a half. And the baby’s real mother is deeply moved. She would rather the other woman take her baby than see her child die. And it’s her compassion that reveals that she’s the true mother.
IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
But rakhum isn’t just an emotional word. It also involves action. And, surprisingly, the word is used most often to describe God’s actions motivated by his emotions. Like when the Israelites are suffering and oppressed in Egypt, God “hears their cries,” and he’s compelled by his compassion, his rakhamim, to rescue them. (Exodus 3:7)
Then as the Israelites travel through the dangerous wilderness, they’re hungry and thirsty, and God is rakhum—caring for them as his own child. He provides everything they need—food, water, and clothing—as he personally guides them.
19 “Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not fail to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. 20 You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. 21 For forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen.
But despite Yahweh’s continual rakhamim, the Israelites turn away from him time and again. They reject Yahweh’s compassion and instead give their allegiance to other gods. (e.g. 2 Kings 17) And rather than showing compassion to each other, they do violence (Isiah 1:23-24). And their rebellion results in exile, and they’re scattered among the nations. (2 Kings 17, 25)
And it’s in this really dark moment in Israel’s story that we come to the book of Isaiah, where Yahweh compares himself to a mother full of rakhamim toward her baby. He says, “can a mother forget her nursing child, or have no compassion, or rakhamim, on the child of her womb? Even if she forgets, I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15) God is full of motherly compassion, and he will rescue his people. And as you read on further in Isaiah, you realize God is going to do this by entering into the suffering of humanity. (Isaiah 53-54)
IN THE NEW TESTAMENT This all points forward to a time when Jesus comes on the scene. He is Yahweh’s deep compassion become human. (John 1:1-4, 14) In Greek, the word compassion is oiktirmos (οἰκτίρμος), and as Jesus embraces the sick and cares for the outcast, he is deeply moved by human suffering. (Matthew 14:13-14, Mark 1:40-41, Luke 7:12-14, John 11:33) Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, who uses her wings to shield her chicks from danger, as he gathers people into his embrace.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
And in the ultimate expression of oiktirmos, Jesus is moved by compassion to enter into humanity’s suffering, into death itself, to rescue and bring us near to God.
2. PATIENCE (SLOW TO ANGER)
In Hebrew, the phrase “slow to anger” is pronounced ’erek ’appayim, or literally, “long of nose.” But what does God’s patience have to do with a long nose?
Well, first, we need to look at the common biblical Hebrew way to say that someone is angry: “their nose burned hot.” Like in the story of Joseph, when Potiphar thinks that Joseph tried to sleep with his wife, “his nose burned hot.” (Genesis 39:19) It’s usually translated “his anger burned.” It’s describing how your body, especially your face, gets hot when you’re filled with anger. And so in Hebrew, the main words for anger are either “nose” or “heat” or “hot nose.”
This is why a patient person is called “long of nose.” It takes a long time for their nose to get hot. Like in the biblical proverb, “A person’s wisdom is their long nose,” (Proverbs 19:11) that is, their slow anger!
Now, in the Bible, God gets angry numerous times, but God doesn’t have a nose or get hot! These are metaphors, using our experience of hot anger to describe how God feels when he witnesses human evil. Just like you would get angry if you saw a child being bullied on the playground, so God gets angry when humans oppress each other and ruin his world. In the Bible, God’s anger is an expression of his justice and his love for the world. But he’s slow to anger, which means he gives people lots of time to change.
Like in the story of the Exodus, when Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites and has their baby boys thrown into the waters, God sends Moses to confront Pharaoh.4 And Pharaoh’s given ten chances to let Israel go free. (Exodus 7) But after the tenth refusal, Pharaoh rides out with his chariots to destroy the Israelites, (Exodus 14:5-7) and so God destroys him in the waters. (Exodus 14:26-28) Pharaoh’s own evil is turned back upon him, and we read that this is an act of God’s “hot anger.”
Now, that’s really intense. But think about it. God wouldn’t be good if he didn’t get angry at Pharaoh’s evil and eventually do something about it. And notice that God’s anger is expressed by handing Pharaoh over to the consequences of his own decisions.
And this is actually how God’s anger is shown throughout the Scriptures, like in the story of the Israelites. Over and over again, for hundreds of years, they betray the God who rescued them from slavery. And though he gives them many chances to turn around, they keep giving their allegiance to the gods of other nations.
And each time we read that “the hot anger of God burned against the Israelites.” But notice what always follows: “God gave them over into the hands of their enemies.” Judges 2:14 Israel wanted to serve the gods of other nations, and so God, in his just anger, gives them what they want, as those nations circle back and defeat Israel.
GOD’S ANGER IN THE NEW TESTAMENT In Greek, “makrothumei”; as in “Love is patient”, it means long duration or distance to anger. This is similar to what the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans. (Romans 1:18-32)
He says God’s anger is being revealed against human evil, and then three times he says what that looks like. God hands people over to their destructive desires and decisions, even if it leads to death.
But Paul also says God is patient, giving people time to come to their senses and change. Because remember, God’s anger is a response to human evil, and it’s based on a deeper character trait: his compassion and his loyal love. God is not content to let people sit in their own self-destruction. In the Bible, God’s on a mission to rescue.
The Hebrew word is khanun, which is related to the Hebrew noun khen. This word, khen, is often translated as “grace” or “favour.” And if you study how this word is used throughout the Bible, you’ll find a fascinating story.
One meaning of khen is “delightful” or “favourable.” In the Psalms, a skilled poet is said to have “lips of khen,” (Psalm 45:2) that is, he can craft beautiful words that bring delight. Or a dazzling piece of jewellery is an “ornament of khen.” (Prov. 1:9) It attracts attention and favour.
This is why khen is often the word used to describe a gift given with delight or favour. In these cases, khen could be translated as “grace.”
Like in the story of Esther, who approaches the king of Persia to ask that she and her people be spared from death. She calls this a “request for khen,” (Esther 8:3) and because the king delights in Esther, he favours her and grants her wish.
So giving a gift of favour is khen because it’s motivated by delight. And the most extreme kind of khen is showing favour to someone who should get what they deserve not a generous gift.
Like Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau, ran away, and then after twenty years wants to come back and make things right. So he comes to Esau asking, “may I find khen in your eyes?” (Genesis 33:8) Jacob isn’t asking for what is fair but for a favour. And surprisingly, that’s what Esau gives him. He chooses to delight in his brother Jacob and show him grace that he doesn’t deserve.
Now, khen requires a generous spirit, which people sometimes have. But in the Bible, the one who shows more khen than anyone else is God.
Like when God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and they quickly betray him by giving their allegiance to a golden idol as their god. But then Moses steps in and asks God to consider giving a gift that they don’t deserve. And God says yes by showing the ultimate act of khen—forgiveness and a promise to be with these people. (Exodus 33:16)
This character trait of God is so reliable that over 40 times in the book of Psalms people cry out for God’s khen—when they’re sick, or in danger, or when the Israelites are in exile. And the biblical prophets, like Isaiah, looked back to God’s khen in the past and boldly declared that God will one day show khen to his people by delivering them, and all creation, from death and ruin.
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!
IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Now when we turn to the authors of the New Testament, they describe God’s khen with the Greek word kharis, which means “gracious gift.” Like when we’re introduced to Jesus in the Gospel of John, we’re told that Jesus is God’s glorious kharis become human, sent into a world of people trapped in darkness and death.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
AW Tozer writes:
“As mercy is God’s goodness confronting human misery and guilt, so grace is His goodness directed toward human debt and demerit. It is by his grace that God imputes merit where none previously existed and declares no debt to be where one had been before.”
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible defines grace as,
“the dimension of divine activity that enables God to confront human indifference and rebellion with an inexhaustible capacity to forgive and to bless.”
When talking about the grace of God, theologians will often differentiate between God’s common grace and his saving grace. Patrick Mabilog writes this about the difference.
“His common grace is a gift to all of mankind. It is the reason that everyone – Christian or non-Christian - enjoys the blessings of life, provision and abundance. Matthew 5:45 tells us, ‘For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’”
While all of humanity benefits from common grace, only those who profess believe and put their faith in Christ receive saving grace. This is what results in our sanctification and our glorification of God, that we might live for him and enjoy him for all eternity.
Let me show you a picture of what compassion, patience and grace looks like:
Dick Hoyt and his son Rick Hoyt competed together in various athletic endeavors, including marathons and Ironman Triathlons. Rick has cerebral palsy and through a special computer by which he communicates, he told his father that he wanted to run a marathon for the benefit of his friend. Dick had a heart condition but he trained to fulfil his son's wishes and so their story began. During the competition, Dick pulled Rick in a special boat as they would swim, carried him in a special seat in the front of a bicycle, and pushed him in a special wheelchair as they ran. Team Hoyt was inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame and has been the most inspirational athlete since. Rick could not compete without his dad. Dick would not compete without his son.
This is a picture of grace. We are that young man on the chair and all that our Heavenly Father wants us to do is for us to sit in that chair, remain there and for Him to carry us, pull us, push us so we can finish the race because He knows we can't on our own.
It’s through this divine concept of Mercy, patience and grace that salvation happens. God forgave our wrongs (sins) because of His mercy and by grace so that we can have an everlasting relationship with Jesus. This free gift came at a huge cost—Christ’s life—and even though He didn’t deserve His death on the cross, out of His love for us, He gave us everlasting life! Let’s extend our hands with the love and compassion of Jesus, and release grace into our world which desperately needs to know Him.