The Angel Provoked
Exodus 23:21
Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him.

The language in this passage is very strong, and may occasion difficulty. "Provoke him not, for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him." If this angel is the Son of God, he who afterwards became incarnate for man's salvation, and who died to procure forgiveness for us, it startles us to hear of him - "he will not pardon your transgressions." When we think, too, on what God's name imports - on the revelation subsequently made of it, - "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin," etc., it astonishes us to learn that this angel, in whom the name is, will not pardon Israel's sin. The history, also, may be thought to create difficulties. For, undeniably, the Israelites were often pardoned. They were, in truth, continually being pardoned; for, "stiff-necked" as they were, they could not have stood for a day in their covenant, had not God's mercy been constantly extended to them. It is plain, therefore, from the nature of the case, that the expression is not to be taken absolutely; the sense in which it is to be understood well deserves investigation.

I. IN WHAT SENSE TRUE OF ISRAEL. The general meaning is, as stated above, that the angel would not look lightly on their offences, would not pass them over, but would severely punish them. This accorded with the constitution under which they were placed, to which it belonged, that "every transgression and disobedience" should "receive a just recompense of reward" (Hebrews 2:2). The context suggests, or admits of, the following qualifications -

1. The statement refers, it will be observed, to what the angel will do when "provoked" - to what will happen when his wrath is "kindled" against Israel (cf. Psalm 78:21, 49, 50, 59, etc.). But how long did this Divine conductor bear with Israel before permitting his wrath to be thus kindled against them! He was "slow to anger." What pardon was implied in his very long-suffering!

2. The transgressions alluded to are not ordinary offences - not the sins of infirmity and short-coming which mark the lives even of the best - but such outstanding acts of transgression as are mentioned in the context - fundamental breaches of the covenant. These were the sins which would specially provoke the angel (cf. Deuteronomy 32:5, 15-28). They would be "surely" punished.

3. The general assertion that transgressions will not be pardoned does not imply that there is no room left for intercession and repentance; that, e.g., an alteration in the spiritual conditions might not procure, if not remission, at least a sensible alleviation of the penalty; that prayer, proceeding from a contrite heart, might not obtain the removal of affliction, or the restoration of the penitent to Divine favour. Great severity, nevertheless, attaches to this announcement. The history is the best commentary upon it. It is literally true that, after the ratification of the covenant at Sinai, no serious transgression of Israel was allowed to go unpunished. In no case did even repentance avail wholly to avert chastisement. At most, the penalty was lightened, or shortened in duration. Thus, on the occasion of the sin of the golden calf, the earnest intercession of Moses availed to save the people from destruction, and obtained from God the promise that he would still go with them; but it did not save the idolaters from being smitten with the sword of Levi (Exodus 32:28), or prevent the Lord from still "plaguing" the people "because they made the calf, which Aaron made" (Exodus 32:35). Cf. later instances, e.g., Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-8); the murmuring at Taberah (Numbers 11:1-3); the lusting at Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11:4-35); the rebellion at Kadesh, punished by the rejection of that whole generation (Numbers 13., 14.); the revolt of Korah (Numbers 16., 17.); the sin at Meribah, when even Moses forfeited his right to enter the land of promise (Numbers 20:1-13); the later murmuring, when the people were punished by fiery serpents (Numbers 21:7-9); the idolatry and fornication of Baal-peor (Numbers 25.). This severity is the more remarkable when we remember how leniently God dealt with the people before the ratification of the covenant with Sinai. "All murmurings before they came to Sinai were passed over, or merely rebuked; all murmurings and rebellions after Sinai bring down punishment and death" (Kitto). We trace the same principle of dealing through the whole history of the Old Testament. David, e.g., is personally forgiven for his sin of adultery; but the temporal penalty is not remitted (2 Samuel 12.). He is punished on a later occasion for numbering the people, and has the choice given him of three evils; and this, notwithstanding his sincere repentance (2 Samuel 24.). So Manasseh is said to have "filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon" (2 Kings 24:5). The congruity of this strict dealing with a dispensation of law is sufficiently obvious; and, in the light of the examples quoted, the language of the text will not be felt to be too strong.

II. HOW FAR TRUE UNDER THE GOSPEL. The Gospel, as befits its nature, places in the forefront, not the declaration that God will not pardon sin, but the announcement of the terms on which he will pardon. It is a declaration of mercy to those who are viewed as already under wrath - the law having accomplished its design of convincing men of sin. The terms, however, on which the Gospel proposes to grant forgiveness are of such a nature as fully to establish the truth underlying this text; viz., that God, as a God of holiness, will not clear the guilty (cf. Exodus 34:7).

1. This truth is the presupposition of the Gospel Else whence its demand for atonement? Why is sin not simply condoned - not simply waived aside as something admitting of unconditional pardon? In view of the fact that the Gospel absolutely refuses pardon save on the ground of "the shedding of blood," it certainly cannot be accused of making light of guilt, or of ignoring its relations to justice. God remains the just God, even while he is the Saviour (Romans 3:26). Stated otherwise, it is on the ground of the principle in the text, that a Gospel is needed. "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Romans 1:18). No clearing of the guilty here. The principle in question is the general principle of God's moral administration (Romans 2:6-12).

2. This truth still applies in its rigour to those who "disobey" the Gospel. For these there is no pardon. There remains for them only judgment and fiery indignation (Hebrews 10:27). So solemn is the truth that "there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

3. Even believers, notwithstanding that they receive spiritual pardon, must not expect to escape temporal chastisements, appropriate to their offences. So far as sin's penalties are bound up with natural law it is certain that they will not escape them. They may be spiritually pardoned, yet, as respects the temporal penalty, may, like Esau, find no place for repentance, though they seek it carefully with tears (Hebrews 12:17). God alone is judge of how far, and with what measure of benefit to the individual, and of glory to himself, he can remit temporal chastisements (Exodus 33:19). Respect will doubtless be had to the circumstances under which the sin was committed, to the depth and sincerity of the repentance, to the publicity of the scandal (cf. 2 Samuel 12:14), to the moral benefit likely to accrue, etc.

4. Hypocritical professors of Christ's name will be dealt with according to this rule. They will be punished with special severity (Matthew 24:51).

III. HOW RECONCILABLE WITH GOD'S REVEALED ATTRIBUTE OF MERCY. Our thoughts revert to the revelation of God's name in ch. 34:6, 7. The attributes of mercy occupy the foreground, yet not to the denial of the sternness of holiness, which, in the latter clauses, finds distinct expression. "Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers," etc. God's mercy to Israel was exhibited compatibly with what has been seen to be the meaning of the text -

(1) In his great long-suffering in bearing with their provocations.

(2) In his turning aside the fierceness of his anger, in answer to earnest intercession, or when signs were shown of repentance.

(3) In limiting the measure of his wrath - either by exchanging a severer penalty for a lighter one, or by shortening the time of infliction. Cf. Psalm 78:38 - "But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not, yea, many a time turned he his anger away and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but flesh," etc.

(4) In granting spiritual pardons, even when temporal penalties were not revoked.

(5) In restoring the penitent to favour, after punishment had taken effect in inducing contrition.

(6) In keeping covenant with the children, even when rejecting the fathers.

(7) The full reconciliation is seen in the Gospel, in the fact of the atonement. - J.O.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him.

WEB: Pay attention to him, and listen to his voice. Don't provoke him, for he will not pardon your disobedience, for my name is in him.

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