1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. 5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. 6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.
Philip Ryken passes on a story that makes us chuckle and helps us understand what is happening in Exodus 34.
Maxie Dunnam tells the story of a woman who “took a friend with her when she went to a photographer to have her picture taken. The beauty parlor had done its best for her. She took her seat in the studio and fixed her pose. While the photographer was adjusting his lights in preparation for taking the shot, she said to him, “Now be sure to do me justice.” The friend who had accompanied her said, with a twinkle in her eye, “My dear, what you need is not justice but mercy.”
While we laugh at the audacious comment from the lady’s friend, there is something actually quite profound about that statement: “My dear, what you need is not justice but mercy.” To which we might say: Indeed! Indeed that is so!
That was certainly the case with Israel and it is certainly the case with us as well. We need mercy, not justice! The last couple of chapters have been chapters of justice for Israel, and rightfully so. They had earned justice and God’s wrath because of their disobedience. So do we all. But what God reveals about His character in Exodus 34 is that, while His justice is pure and His anger is always just, He is the God who delights in mercy.
The Law of God is unchanging and cannot be broken.
Israel had worshiped the golden calf and Moses had smashed the tablets of the commandments in shock and anger. Now, significantly, God calls on Moses to come to Him so that new tablets could be created.
1 The Lord said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. 3 No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” 4 So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone.
William Propp suggests that there may be irritation in God’s words to Moses about the new tablets, that, in other words, “there could…be a touch of pique in God’s words [‘Cut for yourself…’].” Speaking of God’s instructions that Moses ascend the mountain with the tablets, Propp writes, “Rather than receive tablets from Yahweh on the mountain, Moses must lug up a blank set.” And of God’s words, “which you broke,” Propp asks, “Is there a note of irritation in Yahweh’s voice? God had made the original tablets, which Moses shattered on his own initiative. Now, like a stern parent, God insists that Moses perform some of the compensatory labor himself.”
There is likely something too this. Moses, after all, struggled with his temper. Ultimately, his temper would play its part in keeping him from entering the promised land. But what is most significant about this passage is not what it hints at about Moses’ character but what it reveals about God’s. And what this call for new tablets says about God’s character is that God’s character is immutable and that His law cannot be changed. It is eternal. It is unchanging. And God’s plan cannot be thwarted. The tablets must be redone!
I believe it was Vance Havner who said that while we talk about “breaking God’s commandments” in reality the commandments of God cannot be broken. “You break yourself against God’s commandments,” Havner said, “but God’s commandments are unbreakable.” It was a witty and memorable way of making an important point. Our colloquial references to breaking God’s law must not blind us to the reality that God’s law is a solid rock and cannot be moved.
This is why it was important for the tablets to be rewritten. It was a symbol of the nature of the law of God: the law of God stands forever. The tablets, we might say, cannot remain broken.
The Law of God emanates from God’s unchanging character.
It is possible to grant the immutable nature of the law of God and yet have a faulty concept of it. How we think about and envision the law is important.
5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord.
Note that God, in giving the law again, proclaims the name of God! He proclaims His own name and glory and deity. Why? To show that the law emanates from His character, His person, from who He is. This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that it rules out any idea of there being a law above God to which God must ascribe.
It is precisely here that many make their earnest but nonetheless dangerous mistake. There is nothing called “law” that is above God. The law comes from the very heart of God. It is an expression of who He is, of His character. To miss this and to think of “the law” as something above God is to commit the error of…well…putting something above God! But there is nothing above God, nothing to which God must attain or ascribe.
His word is the law for His word is truth and He always acts in accord with His perfecty and holy will.
The Law of God is an expression of the love and holiness of God.
If God’s law is an expression of His unchanging character what exactly does it reveal about Him? Here we come to one of the most beautiful and powerful expressions of the character of God in all of scripture.
6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 8 And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.
The importance of the list of attributes in verses 6 and 7 in the life of Israel cannot be overstated. The IVP Bible Background Commentary points out that verses 6-7 list “thirteen attributes of God (according to Jewish tradition)” and says of this list:
This list is quoted many times in the Scriptures (Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah 1:3) and forms a sort of confessional statement. This litany of God’s characteristics is still used in Jewish liturgy today and was probably an established part of the temple worship prior to the exile.
Terence Fretheim says of it that it has “a certain abstract, even propositional character. It cuts across the Old Testament as a statement of basic Israelite convictions regarding its God. It thus constitutes a ‘canon’ of the kind of God Israel’s God is…” This list is important because it sets the context for how we should read and understand the law of God. Simply put, the law comes from this kind of heart:
- slow to anger
- abounding in steadfast love
- abounding in faithfulness
- keeping steadfast love for thousands
- forgiving iniquity
- forgiving transgression
- forgiving sin
- but who will by no means clear the guilty
- visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children
What are we to make of this list of attributes? Notice the strong note of mercy, of love, of grace, of faithfulness, and of forgiveness that serves as the fountainhead of this list. This list bursts out of the dark sky of judgment that had been hanging over Israel since the golden calf. It heralds hope, mercy, and forgiveness.
But note, too, that judgment is here. God’s judgment stands hand-in-hand with God’s mercy. When the Lord says that He “will by no means clear the guilty” and that He will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children” He is saying that while He offers mercy to all who will come, those who turn from Him and choose their rebellion will find not only judgment but will set loose a scourge of sin that will affect their own progeny. We must not see this last point as some sort of ambiguous “generational curse.” It refers rather to the power of sinful example on our children and grandchildren and to the passing on, by virtue of example, of proclivities to our children toward our own sins. But it does not mean that we must do what our fathers and grandfathers did, or that our children or grandchildren must commit our sins! The freedom of Jesus Christ is stronger than any such bondage.
The list begins with mercy and ends with judgment. Douglas Stewart has offered a great summary of this dynamic.
God then issued a corrective against the natural human tendency to accept grace on the assumption that because an infinite God can produce an infinite amount of grace, sin has no significant consequence. This corrective is introduced simply by the normal Hebrew word for “and,” which the NIV justifiably translates “yet” but which is not a strong adversative word. Perhaps an even more revealing, even if tendentious, translation would be something like: “[Forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin] and at the same time not letting anybody off [i.e., making sure that the guilty get what they deserve].”
That is well said! God is an ocean of mercy, but He is not mocked. God offers eternal life, but outside of this life there is judgment and damnation. This list of attributes is the heralding of two ways, two paths, two lives.
I like how Tony Merida summarizes these attributes of God. He writes:
- To those in need, God is compassionate (or merciful).
- To those who cannot measure up, God is gracious.
- To those who are rebellious, God is slow to anger.
- To the guilty, God is forgiving.
- To the unrepentant, God is just.
Imagine the great hope that these words kindled in Moses’ heart and in the hearts of the Israelites. God offered Israel mercy! God offered Israel hope! And yet, the clearest picture of the character of God, the very incarnation of these attributes, would come in the person and work of Jesus.
Jesus is the very embodiment of Exodus 34:6-7.
Jesus is the mercy of God.
Jesus is the love of God.
Jesus is the forgiveness of God.
And, yes, for those who reject the Son, He is the wrath of God.
We stand, like Moses, before the God who is. This is who He is! And like Moses, we should worship. Will we? Are we?
Stand in awe of your great God! Bow in submission to His mighty name! Come to the mountain with Moses and see there a greater mountain to come: Calvary! There our God will go and die on a cross so that we might live! There is Christ, the Lord of Glory!
 Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p.1041-1042.
 William H.C. Propp, Exodus 19-40. The Anchor Bible. Vol.2A (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2006), p.608.
 John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.116.
 Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus. Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.302.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus. The New American Commentary. Vol 2. Gen. Ed., E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), p.717.
 Tony Merida, Exalting Jesus in Exodus. Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary. Kindle Edition, p. 212-213.