Exodus 34:7
Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
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Exodus 34:7

The former chapter tells us of the majesty of the divine revelation as it was made to Moses on ‘the mount of God.’ Let us notice that, whatever was the visible pomp of the external Theophany to the senses, the true revelation lay in the proclamation of the ‘Name’; the revelation to the conscience and the heart; and such a revelation had never before fallen on mortal ears. It is remarkable that the very system which was emphatically one of law and retribution should have been thus heralded by a word which is perfectly ‘evangelical’ in its whole tone. That fact should have prevented many errors as to the relation of Judaism and Christianity. The very centre of the former was ‘God is love,’ ‘merciful and gracious,’ and if there follows the difficult addition ‘visiting the iniquities,’ etc., the New Testament adds its ‘Amen’ to that. True, the harmony of the two and the great revelation of the means of forgiveness lay far beyond the horizon of Moses and his people, but none the less was it the message of Judaism that ‘there is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared.’ The law spoke of retribution, justice, duty, and sin, but side by side with the law was another institution, the sacrificial worship, which proclaimed that God was full of love, and that the sinner was welcomed to His side. And it is the root of many errors to transfer New Testament language about the law to the whole Old Testament system. But, passing away from this, I wish to look at two points in these words.

I. The characteristics of human sins.

II. The divine treatment of them.

I. The characteristics of human sins.

Observe the threefold form of expression-iniquity and transgression and sin.

It seems natural that in the divine proclamation of His own holy character, the sinful nature of men should be characterised with all the fervid energy of such words; for the accumulation even of synonyms would serve a moral purpose, expressive at once of the divine displeasure against sin, and of the free full pardon for it in all its possible forms. But the words are very far from all meaning the same thing. They all designate the same actions, but from different points of view, and with reference to different phases and qualities of sin.

Now these three expressions are inadequately represented by the English translation.

‘Iniquity’ literally means ‘twisting,’ or ‘something twisted,’ and is thus the opposite of ‘righteousness,’ or rather of what is ‘straight.’ It is thus like our own ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ or like the Latin ‘in-iquity’ {by which it is happily enough rendered in our version}. So looking at this word and the thoughts which connect themselves with it, we come to this:-

{1} All sin of every sort is deviation from a standard to which we ought to be conformed.

Note the graphic force of the word as giving the straight line to which our conduct ought to run parallel, and the contrast between it and the wavering curves into which our lives meander, like the lines in a child’s copy-book, or a rude attempt at drawing a circle at one sweep of the pencil. Herbert speaks of

‘The crooked wandering ways in which we live.’

There is a path which is ‘right’ and one which is ‘wrong,’ whether we believe so or not.

There are hedges and limitations for us all. This law extends to the ordering of all things, whether great or small. If a line be absolutely straight, and we are running another parallel to it, the smallest possible wavering is fatal to our copy. And the smallest deflection, if produced, will run out into an ever-widening distance from the straight line.

There is nothing which it is more difficult to get into men’s belief than the sinfulness of little sins; nothing more difficult to cure ourselves of than the habit of considering quantity rather than quality in moral questions. What a solemn thought it is, that of a great absolute law of right rising serene above us, embracing everything! And this is the first idea that is here in our text-a grave and deep one.

But the second of these expressions for sin literally means ‘apostasy,’ ‘rebellion,’ not ‘transgression,’ and this word brings in a more solemn thought yet, viz.:-

{2} Every sin is apostasy from or rebellion against God.

The former word dealt only with abstract thought of a ‘law,’ this with a ‘Lawgiver.’

Our obligations are not merely to a law, but to Him who enacted it. So it becomes plain that the very centre of all sin is the shaking off of obedience to God. Living to ‘self’ is the inmost essence of every act of evil, and may be as virulently active in the smallest trifle as in the most awful crime.

How infinitely deeper and darker this makes sin to be!

When one thinks of our obligations and of our dependence, of God’s love and care, what an ‘evil and a bitter thing’ every sin becomes!

Urge this terrible contrast of a loving Father and a disobedient child.

This idea brings out the ingratitude of all sin.

But the third word here used literally means ‘missing an aim,’ and so we come to

{3} Every sin misses the goal at which we should aim. There may be a double idea here-that of failing in the great purpose of our being, which is already partially included in the first of these three expressions, or that of missing the aim which we proposed to ourselves in the act. All sin is a failure.

By it we fall short of the loftiest purpose. Whatever we gain we lose more.

Every life which has sin in it is a ‘failure.’ You may be prosperous, brilliant, successful, but you are ‘a failure.’

For consider what human life might be: full of God and full of joy. Consider what the ‘fruits’ of sin are. ‘Apples of Sodom.’ How sin leads to sorrow. This is an inevitable law. Sin fails to secure what it sought for. All ‘wrong’ is a mistake, a blunder. ‘Thou fool!’

So this word suggests the futility of sin considered in its consequences. ‘These be thy gods, O Israel!’ ‘The end of these things is death.’

II. The divine treatment of sins.

‘Forgiving,’ and yet not suffering them to go unpunished.

{1} God forgives, and yet He does not leave sin unpunished, for He will ‘by no means clear the guilty.’

The one word refers to His love, His heart; the other to the retributions which are inseparable from the very course of nature.

Forgiveness is the flow of God’s love to all, and the welcoming back to His favour of all who come. Forgiveness likewise includes the escape from the extreme and uttermost consequences of sin in this life and in the next, the sense of God’s displeasure here, and the final separation from Him, which is eternal death. Forgiveness is not inconsistent with retribution. There must needs be retribution, from-

{a} The very constitution of our nature.

Conscience, our spiritual nature, our habits all demand it.

{b} The constitution of the world.

In it all things work under God, but only for ‘good’ to them who love God. To all others, sooner or later, the Nemesis comes. ‘Ye shall eat of the fruit of your doings.’

{2} God forgives, and therefore He does not leave sin unpunished. It is divine mercy that strikes. The end of His chastisement is to separate us from our sins.

{3} Divine forgiveness and retributive justice both centre in the revelation of the Cross.

To us this message comes. It was the hidden heart of the Mosaic system. It was the revelation of Sinai. To Israel it was ‘proclaimed’ in thunder and darkness, and the way of forgiveness and the harmony of righteousness and mercy were veiled. To us it is proclaimed from Calvary. There in full light the Lord passes before us and proclaims, ‘I am the Lord, the Lord God merciful and gracious.’ ‘Ye are come . . .unto Jesus.’ ‘See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh.’ ‘This is my Beloved Son, hear Him !’

34:5-9 The Lord descended by some open token of his presence and manifestation of his glory in a cloud, and thence proclaimed his NAME; that is, the perfections and character which are denoted by the name JEHOVAH. The Lord God is merciful; ready to forgive the sinner, and to relieve the needy. Gracious; kind, and ready to bestow undeserved benefits. Long-suffering; slow to anger, giving time for repentance, only punishing when it is needful. He is abundant in goodness and truth; even sinners receive the riches of his bounty abundantly, though they abuse them. All he reveals is infallible truth, all he promises is in faithfulness. Keeping mercy for thousands; he continually shows mercy to sinners, and has treasures, which cannot be exhausted, to the end of time. Forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin; his mercy and goodness reach to the full and free forgiveness of sin. And will by no means clear the guilty; the holiness and justice of God are part of his goodness and love towards all his creatures. In Christ's sufferings, the Divine holiness and justice are fully shown, and the evil of sin is made known. God's forgiving mercy is always attended by his converting, sanctifying grace. None are pardoned but those who repent and forsake the allowed practice of every sin; nor shall any escape, who abuse, neglect, or despise this great salvation. Moses bowed down, and worshipped reverently. Every perfection in the name of God, the believer may plead with Him for the forgiveness of his sins, the making holy of his heart, and the enlargement of the Redeemer's kingdom.This was the second revelation of the name of the God of Israel to Moses. The first revelation was of Yahweh as the self-existent One, who purposed to deliver His people with a mighty hand Exodus 3:14; this was of the same Yahweh as a loving Saviour who was now forgiving their sins. The two ideas that mark these revelations are found combined, apart from their historical development, in the second commandment, where the divine unity is shown on its practical side, in its relation to human obligations (compare Exodus 34:14; Exodus 20:4). Both in the commandment and in this passage, the divine love is associated with the divine justice; but in the former there is a transposition to serve the proper purpose of the commandments, and the justice stands before the love. This is strictly the legal arrangement, brought out in the completed system of the ceremonial law, in which the sin-offering, in acknowledgment of the sentence of justice against sin, was offered before the burnt-offering and the peace-offering. But in this place the truth appears in its essential order; the retributive justice of Yahweh is subordinated to, rather it is made a part of, His forgiving Love (see Exodus 32:14 note). The visitation of God, whatever form it may wear, is in all ages the working out purposes of Love toward His children. The diverse aspects of the divine nature, to separate which is the tendency of the unregenerate mind of man and of all paganism, are united in perfect harmony in the Lord Yahweh, of whom the saying is true in all its length and breadth, "God is love" 1 John 4:8. It was the sense of this, in the degree to which it was now revealed to him, that caused Moses to bow his head and worship Exodus 34:8. But the perfect revelation of the harmony was reserved for the fulness of time when "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" Revelation 13:8 was made known to us in the flesh as both our Saviour and our Judge. 6. the Lord passed by before him—in this remarkable scene, God performed what He had promised to Moses the day before.

proclaimed, The Lord … merciful and gracious—At an earlier period He had announced Himself to Moses, in the glory of His self-existent and eternal majesty, as "I am" [Ex 3:14]; now He makes Himself known in the glory of His grace and goodness—attributes that were to be illustriously displayed in the future history and experience of the church. Being about to republish His law—the sin of the Israelites being forgiven and the deed of pardon about to be signed and sealed by renewing the terms of the former covenant—it was the most fitting time to proclaim the extent of the divine mercy which was to be displayed, not in the case of Israel only, but of all who offend.

For thousands; the Chaldee and some others render it, for a thousand generations.

Iniquity, and transgression, and sin; sins of all sorts and sizes, secret or open, infirmities or presumptions, against God or men, as the heap of various words here put together signifies.

That will by no means clear the guilty: this is commonly esteemed a title of justice or vengeance, which is here added by way of correction lest men should mistake or abuse God’s mercy. God is most gracious indeed, but so as he is also just, and will not pity nor spare impudent and impenitent transgressors, but will severely punish them. And the Jewish doctors hereupon observe, that the mercy of God doth far exceed his justice; here being, as they number them, thirteen attributes of mercy, and but one of justice. But this translation and interpretation is rejected by some late learned interpreters, who make this an attribute of God’s goodness or clemency, and render the words thus, In destroying he will not utterly destroy, though visiting, &c.: q.d. He is so gracious, that though he will severely punish the iniquity of the fathers, and especially their idolatry, upon themselves, and upon their children, &c., as he hath said, Exodus 20:5, yet in judgment he will remember mercy, and will not utterly destroy his people for their sins. There are many things which favour this interpretation.

1. This suits most with Moses’s solicitude and prayer for the people of Israel, which was that God would not utterly destroy them, as he threatened to do.

2. This sense best agrees with God’s promise, Exodus 33:19, I will make all my goodness pass before thee; which general promise is particularly explained and performed in these two verses.

3. This place doth not speak of God’s disposition and carriage towards his enemies, against whom he proceeds with great severity, and commands the Israelites to do so in the verses here following; but towards his people, whose cause Moses is all along pleading with God. See Exodus 32:11-13,31,32 33:13,15 Exo 34:9.

4. The Hebrew verb here used frequently signifies to make empty or desolate, to empty men of their goods, or places of men. See Isaiah 3:26 Amos 4:6. So here, he will not utterly empty or destroy: though he will leave the marks of his vengeance for this sin upon thy people, even to their third and fourth generation; or, if it may be, further; yet he will not utterly root them out, which is the great thing thou fearest and labourest to prevent. And this very phrase, here used, we have in Jeremiah 30:11, and repeated Jeremiah 46:28, where, though interpreters generally render it, I will not leave thee altogether unpunished, which may make a good sense, yet it seems much better to be rendered, I will not utterly destroy thee,

(1.) Because hereby these words exactly answer to the foregoing clause, yet will I not make a full end of thee, and so the same thing is elegantly repeated in other words, which is very frequent in Scripture.

(2.) Because here is an opposition between the severity God useth to other people, and the kindness he useth to his own people, which is manifest in the former member of the verse, and therefore most probable and agreeable in this.

5. This is much confirmed from Numbers 14:18, where Moses, pleading with God for the pardon of his people’s sin, useth this very phrase and argument, as taken out of God’s mouth, which in this sense is very proper and prevalent, Thou hast said, that even when thou dost visit iniquity, &c., thou wilt not utterly destroy them. And God answers him, Exodus 34:20, I have pardoned according to thy word, i.e. so as not utterly to destroy them. But truly as I live, &c., Exodus 34:21-23, i.e. But I will severely punish them. But if this had been the meaning, Lord, thou hast said thou wilt by no means clear the guilty, as we render it, it was a most improper argument, and put a sword into the Lord’s hand to slay them even by virtue of this consideration.

Keeping mercy for thousands,.... In his own heart, in his purposes and decrees, in his counsels and covenant, in his Son, with whom he keeps it for ever, and for all in him, Psalm 89:28 and they are many who are ordained to eternal life, for whom Christ gave his life a ransom, and for whom his blood was shed for the remission of their sins; and whom he justifies by his knowledge, and at last brings to glory as the great Captain of their salvation; these are even a number which no man can number. All the Targums render it to a thousand generations; and Jarchi interprets of two thousand generations. The first letter in the word, rendered "keeping", is longer than is usual, in the Hebrew text; which, according to the Jews (h), denotes the largeness of the grace of God, its great extent and long continuance:

forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin; the word used signifies a lifting it up, and taking it away: thus Jehovah has taken it from the sinner, and put it on his Son, who has borne it, and made satisfaction for it; and in so doing has taken it quite away, so as to be seen no more; and, through the application of his blood to the conscience of a sinner, it is taken away from thence, and removed as far as the east is from the west; from whence it appears, that it is in Christ, and for his sake, that God forgives sin, even through his blood, righteousness, sacrifice, and satisfaction; and this forgiveness is of all sin, of all sorts of sin, original or actual, greater or lesser, public or private, open or secret, of omission or commission, of heart, lip, and life. The Jews sometimes distinguish these three words; "iniquity", they say, signifies sins through pride and presumption; "transgression" intends rebellions against God; and "sin", what is committed through error and mistake (i); and much to this sense is Jarchi's interpretation of these words; they no doubt include all manner of sin, which God for Christ's sake forgives:

and will by no means clear the guilty; without a full and proper satisfaction to justice; which is provided in Christ, whom God has set forth to be the propitiation for sin, to declare his righteousness, that he might appear to be just, while he justifies and pardons those that believe in Jesus; otherwise all the world are guilty before God, and none would be cleared; but those for whom satisfaction is made, and a righteousness wrought out, they are cleared, acquitted, and discharged, and they only: or "though he will by no means let it go unpunished" (k); that is, sin, expressed by the several words preceding; and so to this purpose is this phrase translated in Jeremiah 30:11 and the meaning is, that though God pardons sin, all manner of sin, and so displays his grace and mercy, yet he takes care of the honour of his justice, and never suffers any sin to go unpunished, either on the sinner, or on the surety. Pardon of sin always proceeds upon the redemption that is through the blood of Christ, and is a branch of it, see Romans 3:24. Some understand these words as relating not to the justice, but to the mercy and goodness of God; and render the words, either "in extirpating he will not extirpate", as Maimonides (l); and as Jonathan translates the same phrase in Jeremiah 30:11 "in destroying I will not destroy"; and so De Dieu here, "in emptying he will not empty", or destroy; and this sense is thought to be most agreeable to the prayer of Moses, and the promise of God, that his goodness and glory should pass before him, to which the other sense seems contrary; but the justice of God is as much his glory, and in it lies his goodness, as well as his grace and mercy; besides, the following words cannot be thought to be so expressive of the grace, and mercy, and goodness of God, but of his punitive justice, and so the objection would still remain:

visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the childrens' children, unto the third and to the fourth generation; See Gill on Exodus 20:5.

(h) Vid. Buxtorf. Tiberiad. c. 14. p. 38. (i) Maimon. & Bartenora in Misn. Yoma, c. 4. sect. 2.((k) "et impunita minime dimittens", Tigurine version; "et non exercens impunitatem", Coccei Lexic. in voce (l) Moreh Nevochim, par. 1. c. 54.

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
7. keeping mercy, &c.] hence, with ‘doing’ for ‘keeping,’ Exodus 20:6.

forgiving iniquity, &c.] Cf. Micah 7:18.

will by no means clear the guilty] so Numbers 14:18, Nahum 1:3 a, Jeremiah 30:11 = Jeremiah 46:28 (EVV., here, ‘will in no wise leave unpunished’). The verb is the one rendered hold guiltless in Exodus 20:7 : see the note there.

visiting the iniquity, &c.] See on Exodus 20:5.

Exodus 34:7When Moses had restored the covenant bond through his intercession (Exodus 33:14), he was directed by Jehovah to hew out two stones, like the former ones which he had broken, and to come with them the next morning up the mountain, and Jehovah would write upon them the same words as upon the first,

(Note: Namely, the ten words in Exodus 20:2-17, not the laws contained in Exodus 34:12-26 of this chapter, as Gthe and Hitzig suppose. See Hengstenberg, Dissertations ii. p. 319, and Kurtz on the Old Covenant iii.182ff.)

and thus restore the covenant record. It was also commanded, as in the former case (Exodus 19:12-13), that no one should go up the mountain with him, or be seen upon it, and that not even cattle should feed against the mountain, i.e., in the immediate neighbourhood (Exodus 34:3). The first tables of the covenant were called "tables of stone" (Exodus 24:12; Exodus 31:18); the second, on the other hand, which were hewn by Moses, are called "tables of stones" (Exodus 34:1 and Exodus 34:4); and the latter expression is applied indiscriminately to both of them in Deuteronomy 4:13; Deuteronomy 5:19; Deuteronomy 9:9-11; Deuteronomy 10:1-4. This difference does not indicate a diversity in the records, but may be explained very simply from the fact, that the tables prepared by Moses were hewn from two stones, and not both from the same block; whereas all that could be said of the former, which had been made by God Himself, was that they were of stone, since no one knew whether God had used one stone or two for the purpose. There is apparently far more importance in the following distinction, that the second tables were delivered by Moses and only written upon by God, whereas in the case of the former both the writing and the materials came from God. This cannot have been intended either as a punishment for the nation (Hengstenberg), or as "the sign of a higher stage of the covenant, inasmuch as the further the reciprocity extended, the firmer was the covenant" (Baumgarten). It is much more natural to seek for the cause, as Rashi does, in the fact, that Moses had broken the first in pieces; only we must not regard it as a sign that God disapproved of the manifestation of anger on the part of Moses, but rather as a recognition of his zealous exertions for the restoration of the covenant which had been broken by the sin of the nation. As Moses had restored the covenant through his energetic intercession, he should also provide the materials for the renewal of the covenant record, and bring them to God, for Him to complete and confirm the record by writing the covenant words upon the tables.

On the following morning, when Moses ascended the mountain, Jehovah granted him the promised manifestation of His glory (Exodus 34:5.). The description of this unparalleled occurrence is in perfect harmony with the mysterious and majestic character of the revelation. "Jehovah descended (from heaven) in the cloud, and stood by him there, and proclaimed the name of Jehovah; and Jehovah passed by in his sight, and proclaimed Jehovah, Jehovah God, merciful and gracious," etc. What Moses saw we are not told, but simply the words in which Jehovah proclaimed all the glory of His being; whilst it is recorded of Moses, that he bowed his head toward the earth and worshipped. This "sermon on the name of the Lord," as Luther calls it, disclosed to Moses the most hidden nature of Jehovah. It proclaimed that God is love, but that kind of love in which mercy, grace, long-suffering, goodness, and truth are united with holiness and justice. As the merciful One, who is great in goodness and truth, Jehovah shows mercy to the thousandth, forgiving sin and iniquity in long-suffering and grace; but He does not leave sin altogether unpunished, and in His justice visits the sin of the fathers upon the children and the children's children even unto the fourth generation. The Lord had already revealed Himself to the whole nation from Mount Sinai as visiting sin and showing mercy (Exodus 20:5.). But whereas on that occasion the burning zeal of Jehovah which visits sin stood in the foreground, and mercy only followed afterwards, here grace, mercy, and goodness are placed in the front. And accordingly all the words which the language contained to express the idea of grace in its varied manifestations to the sinner, are crowded together here, to reveal the fact that in His inmost being God is love. But in order that grace may not be perverted by sinners into a ground of wantonness, justice is not wanting even here with its solemn threatenings, although it only follows mercy, to show that mercy is mightier than wrath, and that holy love does not punish til sinners despise the riches of the goodness, patience, and long-suffering of God. As Jehovah here proclaimed His name, so did He continue to bear witness of it to the Israelites, from their departure from Sinai till their entrance into Canaan, and from that time forward till their dispersion among the heathen, and even now in their exile showing mercy to the thousandth, when they turn to the Redeemer who has come out of Zion.

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