Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. James 1:17 (NKJV)
The sun goes through cycles, it rises each morning and sets each day, it casts its light on the earth’s surface for differing lengths per day according to the season, it is eclipsed on occasion and its warm rays are often obscured by clouds. The sun is variable. The same is true of the moon which goes through phases and the stars which wander in their courses according to the commandment of our God (Job 38:31-3). The sun, moon and stars are the lights that God created on the fourth day of creation (Gen. 1:14-9) and as the creator of them He can rightly be proclaimed the ‘Father of Lights’ (Jas. 1:17). God placed them in the heavens as markers for our days, seasons and years and because they change, so does the earth’s climate, driven by the sun in particular. All of them change throughout the year, casting different amounts of light at various times and at altered angles. The shadows they cast are altered as well. But God does not go through revolutions. He does not have seasons. God’s light is constant and He does not change.
Yet, many throughout the world and time have mistakenly observed that the “God of the Old Testament” is different from the “God of the New Testament”. It is claimed that the God revealed in the Old Testament is vengeful and unmerciful, full of violence and wrath, while the God of the New Testament is peaceful, benevolent and tolerant. But how can this assertion square with the quotation above from James 1:17? If God does not change, how can He appear to be two different entities in the two covenants of the Bible? Two things account for this misunderstanding: those who make this claim do not know God AND they do not know God BECAUSE they do not know the Bible.
Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” John 8:58
God is. Moses asked God whom he should tell the Israelites sent him and the answer was, ‘And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you'” (Ex. 3:14). This name (YHWH) revealed to the mediator of the old covenant tells us that God is absolute, an eternal, self-existing being. He has been, is and will be as He has always been—constant, immutable and invariable. His being is of Himself and He is both self- and all-sufficient. As He was to His followers the patriarchs, so would He be to Moses and the children of Israel; as He is with Christians today.
As with Moses, the only way we can come to know God is by His revelation to us. If we desire to know Him as He is then it must be through His Word. As revelation progressed (Heb. 1:1) so did man’s knowledge of God. Moses received more information concerning the divine name and what it reveals about the LORD directly from God at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 34:6-7. His name implies a list of attributes that make God who He is. These things are a part of His immutable nature and can never be absent from Him.
And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious…” Ex. 34:6
God is full of tenderness and compassion because He is love (I Jn. 4:8, 16) and is absolute in goodness. In fact, mercy and grace are defined by God as He perfectly embodies these two attributes. Because He is love it is as if He cannot help but be full of compassion and benevolence. Without God all humanity would be forever lost with no way back to Him. It is because of His mercy and grace, prompted by His “great love with which He loved us” (Eph. 2:4), that He gave us His own son that we might sit with Him in the heavenly places, renewing fellowship with man, lost in Eden, through the reconciling work of Jesus.
The portrait of God painted in the New Testament is undisputed. That God has shown the world His grace and mercy through His son, Jesus Christ, is abundantly clear to all. Even people who don’t read the Bible somehow have that impression of God from the New Testament; but what of God in the Old Testament? In Exodus 34 God claims to be merciful and gracious, yet He seems to be the opposite, according to some.
God has always been a god of mercy (Psa. 59:17) and He delights in it (Mic. 7:18). Consider the fall of man in Genesis 3. We are told that God drove man out of the garden after man’s sin simply because, some might say, God did not want him to live forever (v.22). Is this because God is spiteful and does not want man to live forever? Obviously not! God’s proven beyond question His desire to save mankind and give Him eternal life (Jn. 3:16). Perhaps God separated man from the Tree of Life in the garden because He did not want man to live forever in a state of sin, unredeemed and without hope. Driving man from the garden and the Tree of Life becomes an act of mercy so that God can display is grace in Jesus.
Other accounts of God’s mercy and grace in the Old Testament are abundant, not only because accounts of man’s transgressions against Him are prolific, but also the plight of many innocent people who loved Him. God never utterly destroyed the children of Israel, though they rebelled and broke their covenant with Him many times over. Noah found grace, as did the Israelites that survived the wilderness. The Lord may withhold or shorten punishment (David and Hezekiah) or He may ease the suffering of someone treated unjustly (Joseph and Hagar). Either way, He is showing us and the world His mercy and grace.
“…longsuffering …” Exodus 34:6
God has always been longsuffering, which is to say, because He is love, He puts up with a lot from those whom He loves. Man is and always has been rebellious towards God. What began by deception in Eden has persisted by will ever since. All men are under sin and none are righteous of themselves (Ro. 3:9-10). Yet, God, because of His loving mercy and grace, bears with us even though we are corrupt. He is slow to anger, which is the same concept as longsuffering, out of a desire to see us willingly turn to Him and change our ways. While His it has limits, as will be shown, both testaments are replete with evidence of His longsuffering to both those who abuse and disregard His forbearance and those who wait to receive the ultimate reward of His grace.
The best example of this in the Old Testament has already been mentioned. Israel backslid soon after the exodus from Egyptian bondage and although deserving death for having forsaken the Lord, He did not forsake them (Neh. 9:16-19). Indeed, God is longsuffering or slow to anger. Were God not who He is, then surely the Israelites would have been doomed.
In the New Testament Paul uses himself as a similar example. Christ showed him longsuffering, among other wonderful attributes, in that the persecutor of the early church might serve as proof of Jesus’ desire to save sinners (I Ti. 1:16). The Lord’s longsuffering towards all is patterned for us in these two examples from both testaments. His forbearance of sinners proceeds directly from His love, mercy and grace.
“…abounding in goodness and truth…” Exodus 34:6
This beautiful expression means that God is mighty in benevolence and trustworthiness. This phrase also carries with it exuberance on His part to be kind and an unwillingness to deceive; crucial for a God that chooses to establish covenants with men. One purpose of covenants has been to serve as the avenue for the Lord to shower the blessings of His grace on His chosen people. It is His pleasure to do good toward us and covenants, or pacts, are the expression of this. He is trustworthy, full of truth/fidelity, so He can be counted on to keep His promises.
Deuteronomy 7:9 attests to God’s faithfulness in keeping His side of any bargain, which a covenant is. Every covenant has both blessings and cursings (Jos. 8:34) and God has never broken a covenant. Anyone bound to God in a covenant relationship has received the blessings bestowed by Him as long as they were faithful and the curses when they were not. God keeps His promises. That God is true to His word is mentioned many times in scripture. He kept His word to Noah concerning the destruction of the earth by water, he kept His promises to Abraham and David concerning their descendants ultimately expressed in Jesus. There is not one promise He has made that He has not kept.
“…keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Exodus 34:7
The world continues in sin and corruption, yet God continues to abide it and extend mercy and forgiveness. His mercy is unending, enduring forever, and He is ever willing to remove the stain of sin from us. God overlooked a lot of things from the pre-Christian era in His mercy, but with an eye to fixing the problem of sin through the work of His son. Now He has provided the perfect way to atone for our transgressions and has literally invited everyone to repent (Acts 17:30; II Pet. 3:9). Anyone even casually acquainted with the Bible can understand this and previously cited references from both testaments make it clear that God has always been merciful and is by nature a redeemer.
“…by no means clearing the guilty…” Exodus 34:7
It is God’s prerogative and His alone, to pardon iniquity and save souls. If He were not so loving and kind He would just let us suffer the penalty of sin as we deserve. God is the “Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25) who distributes justice without partiality and from whose hand no sinner may escape. His judgment is absolute and righteous—who are we to gainsay it? It is at this point that many people stumble. How can this loving, merciful, gracious redeemer also be a god of wrath?
Those disturbed by an assumed and different image of God in each testament of the Bible forget or do not know that He has always reserved ultimate judgment for Himself and has only asked that we trust that it is righteous judgment and the assertion that God was vengeful in the Old Testament, but not in the New is false. The New Testament has many references to the Day of Judgment, Hell, and vengeance. In fact, there is more about it in the New than in the Old and there is nothing that Jesus spoke of more!
The difference is that God often used nations to mete out His divine justice in the pre-Christian era. God used the Israelites as the arm of vengeance against the Midianites (Nu. 31:2-3), the Medo-Persians to punish Babylon (Isa.13:19) and other examples are easy to find. Although, He now reserves judgment for Himself (Ro. 12:19), the Lord is portrayed as no less an Avenger in the New Testament than in the Old (II Thess. 1:8; Jude 1:7; also ref. Mt. 25:46; II Tess. 1:9; Php. 3:19; many others).
Retribution is as much a part of God as love is. If judgment is not part of the equation what exactly is He saving us from? That some of us are saved from eternal death is another proof of God’s more popular attributes and His desire to save us out of love. God is absolutely just, yet He also longs to be our redeemer. Ponder this amazing quote from Romans that ties all these attributes of God from Exodus 34:6-7 together:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:21-26
As a self-sustaining, everlasting being, God has no need to change. Temporal things may improve and strengthen or deteriorate and weaken. God cannot do any of these. There is nothing to improve upon and He cannot worsen. God has no need to lie or hide who He is and what He is all about. There is none that can challenge Him. He is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psa.90:2) and nothing about Him has ever altered and He has never wavered in His desire to save men who will put their faith in Him and His son. God has never reconsidered the plan He put in place to redeem us from our transgressions (I Pet. 1:20). For all that He is, all that He has done, all that He will do and all He will withhold out of His loving-kindness we should do as Moses did in Exodus 34:8, who “made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.”
What God asks of us has also not changed since He formed Adam from the dust of the ground:
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” Deuteronomy 10:12-3