When I went to Bible college, I had a professor (Dr. Joe Martin) who was obsessed with the eight attributes of God. It didn’t matter which class he was teaching. We knew we were going to see a question on the final exam that asked us to list out the eight attributes. After a decade and a half of reflection, I think I get it. But, before explaining why these attributes are so important, let me quote the main verses from which we get them.
Exodus 34:5-7. Yahweh descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of Yahweh. Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 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.”1
Moses had asked God, “Please show me your glory” (Ex 33:18). Yahweh replied that although Moses could not see His face, He would have His glory pass by him and proclaim His name. When the time came, God proclaimed His name twice and then listed out His eight attributes.
3. Slow to anger
4. Abounding in steadfast love
5. Abounding in faithfulness
6. Keeping steadfast love
8. Punishing the guilty
This list is heavily weighted towards kindness and love. Some have said the God of the Old Testament (OT) is vengeful and violent, whereas the God of the New Testament (NT) is forgiving and kind. Based on that way of thinking, the eight attributes belong in the NT; yet, here they are (and not even towards the end of the OT, but in the second book). Furthermore, we can find plenty of divine judgment in the NT from Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:5, 10) to Herod (Acts 12:23) to the wrath of God prophesied in Revelation. We will return later to the last attribute of God—punishing the guilty, but first I want to make a couple of observations about the list.
If I asked most westerners who God is, they would probably start listing off ontological attributes rather than His character as we see here. For example, people would say God is invisible, all powerful, all knowing, everywhere present, etc. Isn’t it fascinating that God doesn’t go there when revealing Himself to Moses? I suppose Moses had already seen Yahweh lay waste to the gods of Egypt, multiplying frogs, turning the water to blood, and making it dark for three days—all acts that targeted and humiliated Egyptian deities. Still, God could have talked about His abilities, many of which Moses probably had not yet worked out, but instead, God chose to talk about the various qualities that make a relationship with Him incredibly attractive.
I suppose the eight attributes are like God’s resume—a list of qualifications that make him a suitable God for commitment and worship. What I see in this list is a God who is not moody, rigid, or resentful. Instead of nuking people who disobey Him, He is merciful, slow to anger, and willing to forgive. Unlike fair-weathered “friends,” this God is all about loyalty. He abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness—two qualities associated with covenant relationships. Rather than getting fed up with those who struggle, He is patient in maintaining His steadfast love through thick and thin. Still, Yahweh is no pushover. He does have wrath, and He is ultimately in charge of the cosmic justice department. So, it makes sense that He will not allow the guilty to go unpunished.
Something else to consider is that these eight attributes are not the result of a philosopher’s careful reasoning, a theologian’s synthesis, or a scientist’s experiment. As my teacher in Bible college used to say, “This is God by God.” Who better knows who God is than God Himself? The temptation is to make up who God is based on our own imaginations. We die, so God must be immortal. We are limited in knowledge, so God must be all knowing. We can only be in one place at a time, so God must be everywhere present. I’m not saying these attributes aren’t true, but the process of arriving at them worries me. It’s not safe to look at our own limitations, weaknesses, and flaws and then invert those to conjure up a god of our own making who is unlimited, powerful, and flawless. I’d rather learn who God is right from the source. And in the end, I’d rather have a loving, relational God than one that maxes out on power or knowledge or whatever.
I also find it interesting that God begins with His name. In fact, He says it twice before listing out His attributes (Ex 34:6). These two facts demonstrate the importance of His name. Saying it first and repeating it mark it out from all the attributes that follow. Yahweh is God’s name. Sadly, many Christians today don’t even know the name of the God they worship. To make matters worse, many today would say that His name is Jesus! Personally, I would be aggravated to have people call me by someone else’s name. For example, I have a son named Wesley. If you called me on the phone and said, “Wesley, it’s so great to talk to you,” I would be pretty confused. If you did it repeatedly, I’d be annoyed. If you did it for centuries, I’d be ready to have the earth swallow you up. Thankfully, our God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and very forgiving. Nevertheless, the importance Yahweh places on His own name makes me all the more zealous to tell people about it.
Something else to consider is how often we find echoes of the eight attributes throughout the OT. Rarely are they all listed, but often two or more get mentioned. Moses himself later quoted God’s attributes back to Him in prayer.
Numbers 14:17-20. And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, ‘Yahweh is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.” Then Yahweh said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.”
The people had rebelled (again), and God decided He would destroy them all and start over with Moses (again). In response, Moses stood in the gap between the people and God and boldly petitioned Yahweh to forgive his undeserving people. In the course of praying, Moses mentioned attributes 3 (slow to anger), 4 (abounding in steadfast love), 7 (forgiving), and 8 (punishing). And it worked! Quoting God’s attributes back to God resulted in Him pardoning the people. Now that’s powerful prayer! (For a similar example, see Nehemiah’s prayer in
The psalmists likewise lean on God’s unchanging attributes when they cry out to Him for help (Ps 86:15; 103:8). We encounter one of the most beautiful elaborations on God’s seventh attribute of forgiveness in the
Psalm 103:7-13. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so Yahweh shows compassion to those who fear him.
Isn’t that beautiful? God’s steadfast love stretches to the heavens, and His forgiveness is so thorough that He removes our sins as far as the east is from the west! Yahweh is a compassionate Father who cares for those who fear Him. How can you not love this God?
Another way we see God’s attributes used is when the prophet Joel invoked them as reason for the people
Joel 2:12-14. “Yet even now,” declares Yahweh, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to Yahweh your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for Yahweh
At the time, Judah was in a terrible situation due to their sin. Precisely because Yahweh is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” the people should repent. I totally get what Joel was doing here. I can see the people adopting a defeatist attitude towards sin. “Oh well,” they might say, “we’ve already provoked Yahweh’s wrath, so might as well just continue in our sin. After all, we’re going to suffer either way, right?” Joel comes against such cavalier stubbornness with an appeal to God’s very character. “Wait up, everyone, it’s not too late,” I imagine Joel saying. “There’s still a chance, because Yahweh is compassionate and forgiving.” This is a lesson for all of us. No matter how far gone you are, there’s still hope—not because you can earn your way back or because God needs something from you, but because Yahweh is merciful, gracious, abundant in love, and very forgiving. His kind character is reason alone for us to come to Him, especially when we are undeserving of His love.
Lastly, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the eighth attribute—God punishing the wicked to the third and fourth generation. Is this one like a bone caught in your throat? We can easily swallow the other seven, but when we get to the eighth, we cry out, “That’s not fair! How can you punish people’s grandkids for what they did?” Is this really what God is saying here? Is He saying He will punish someone’s innocent grandchildren for what he or she did? Actually, what He said was, “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” (Ex 34:7). Desmond Alexander offers the following insight, which I find quite helpful.
Because God displays remarkable tolerance towards wrongdoers, divine punishment is only rarely administered immediately after an offence has been committed. Those who are guilty are frequently given an opportunity to repent. However, such patience may be wrongly interpreted as indicating indifference on the part of God. This is clearly not the case, for those who set themselves at odds with God will ultimately reap what they have sown. Although God’s patience may extend for several generations, in the end his judgment will fall justly upon those who remain intransigent. In such instances, when they have walked in their fathers’ footsteps, the accumulated guilt of a family will fall on later generations. An important example of this comes in the book of Kings, where the sins of Manasseh are included with those of his descendants when God punishes the people of Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile (cf. 2 Kgs 23:26; 24:3). While righteous children are not held accountable for the sins of their parents, there may well be a corporate aspect to the whole process of punishment. In the context of a society that consists largely of multi-generational families, it should be recognized that the beneficiaries of parental wrongdoing are almost always their children. As T. F. Williams suggests, ‘The children are punished according to their solidarity with and participation in the misconduct of their parents’ (1996: 660).3
So, God does not punish the innocent for the guilty. In fact, He made a law against that.
Deuteronomy 24:16. Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.
No, that’s not what’s going on here. Instead, what we have in the eighth attribute is the outworking of God’s patience in how He administers justice to the wicked. If He were quick to anger, He would just zap the unrighteous with lightning bolts when they sinned—an outcome I would not wish for since I’ve sometimes been that person. So, if He will be slow to anger, how can He also bring His judgment to bear? He mercifully waits for a couple of generations to see if a family turns around, but then eventually His cup of wrath fills up, and He pours it out. Still, if some descendant repents and pursues righteousness, “he shall not die for his father’s iniquity” (Ezek 18:17). God is both merciful and just, and His way of governing combines both.
By way of conclusion, let me encourage you to memorize God’s eight attributes. I did years ago, and it has benefitted me enormously. Yahweh is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love, abounding in faithfulness, keeping love, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet, He will by no means clear the guilty. This is our God’s self-disclosure. The saints of old knew these attributes and used them in their prayers and in their preaching. What about us? What about today? Has Jesus challenged or changed any of the eight? Of course not! Instead, he’s illustrated God’s incredible love and provided a way for anyone to escape the wrath to come. What a wonderful truth to contemplate.
1 I’m using the ESV but changing back “the LORD” to “Yahweh” in conformity with the Hebrew.
2 For other examples of the eight attributes in the OT, see 2 Chron 30:7-9; Nah 1:3; Jon 4:2.
3 T. Desmond Alexander, Exodus, Apollos Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 406-407.