The Character of God: God is Love by Lauren Botts
As I write this, I can already see the lights of a few early-bird Christmas trees winking through neighboring windows, and I am hard-pressed to think of a better time of year to consider the character of God. While there are truckloads we could say about the heart of God, demonstrated through the first Noel, perhaps the best view of the manger is from the heights of Mount Sinai, where God passed by Moses and disclosed His character in a series of five attributes. We don’t normally think of this event as a whisper of Christmas, but if we follow the apostle John’s lead, who hyperlinks the events of Sinai to the nativity, we just may come to understand the first Christmas, and the character of God, in a fresh and new way. But before we dive in, let’s gain some context of the ancient world we’re preparing to step into:
Who is God? There is not a single culture in recorded human history that has not sought to answer this question. Not one. Instead, the dilemma looming in the ancient mind, although primarily polytheistic, was not unlike the undertaking of this blog series: What is God like? Take a look at this ancient prayer, dating back to around the same time as the Exodus:
May [my] lord’s angry heart be reconciled,
May the god I do not know be reconciled,
May the goddess I do not know be reconciled,
May the god, whoever he is, be reconciled,
May the goddess, whoever she is, be reconciled…
I do not know what wrong I have done,
I do not know what sin I have committed,
I do not know what abomination I have perpetuated,
I do not know what taboo I have violated!
Do you hear the turmoil here? Our ancient friend has no idea who he’s supposed to be praying to, or what he (or she) is like, but the assumption is, they’re cranky.
When God gathered the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai and determined to form them into a “Kingdom of Priests” (Exodus 19:6), with the condition of their undivided allegiance, this was the cultural flavor, and the thing that fueled Israel’s priestly vocation. The idea was that through The Law, Israel would represent Yahweh to the surrounding nations and reconcile them to the One true God (See Deuteronomy 4:6-8) — God’s Kingdom has always encouraged expansion.
Unfortunately, the good times don’t last long. Before the proverbial ink could dry on the contract, the Israelites had already violated rule number one — no idols. With the covenant broken, Israel was stuck in a liminal space, unable to go back to where they came from or forward to where they were going. The fate of the entire nation rested on one thing: The character of God. Would He forgive the Israelites and renew their covenant or abandon the project altogether? In Exodus 34:6-7 the suspense is released when God reveals His “goodness” to Moses (Hang on to that. We’ll circle back around to it later):
The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, 7 maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.
Exodus 34:6-7 (CSB)
AND EXHALE. God’s magnanimous qualities imply that He will renew the covenant! This announcement, detailing God’s character, is so paramount to the theology of Scripture, that it is referenced more than 25 times by the biblical writers, making it the most quoted passage within the entire Bible, and its relevance, undeniable. But if we’re being honest, the last sentence doesn’t feel very joyful or triumphant. It feels uncomfortable and problematic. Does God forgive sin or does He repay it? How can we receive this announcement as evidence of God’s resilient faithfulness the way the Israelites did?
Generally speaking, modern readers (you and me) work through texts in a linear direction, from the beginning to the end, but the majority of biblical narratives play by a different set of rules. They contain certain patterns and repetitions that act as guard rails, meant to steer the reader’s understanding. For example, our passage, Exodus 34:6-7, is made up of two chiasms. A chiasm is a literary device that presents an idea, and then presents it again in reverse order with a “hinge statement” in the middle that highlights the main point. So instead of starting at the beginning and working our way forward, we need to start from the outside and work our way in. Here’s how Exodus 34:6-7 breaks down:
A. Compassionate and gracious God
B. Slow to anger
A. And abounding in faithful love and truth
A. Maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations
B. forgiving iniquity rebellion and sin
C. But will not leave the guilty unpunished
B. Bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren
A. to the third and the fourth generation.
Do you see the hinge statements? In verse 6 the central idea is that God is slow to anger, and in verse 7, it’s that He will not leave the guilty unpunished. BUT (catch this), the repetition of the word pair, “faithful love,” signals another hinge statement holding chiasms 1 and 2 together. These statements are that God is abounding in faithful love and truth (end of chiasm 1), and that He maintains faithful love to a thousand generations (beginning of chiasm 2). Everything that comes before and after hinges on the concept of God’s faithful love.
The Hebrew word for “faithful love,” is hesed. This fairly small word carries with it a mountain of meaning, but at its core it communicates the concept of durable faithfulness or loving-loyalty. The chiastic structures of Exodus 34:6-7 communicate that God’s loving-loyalty, His hesed, is not only His chief attribute but the sum of all the others. So paradoxical is this single attribute, that it can carry the weight of eternity, while being the very first thing we teach our children in Sunday School—God is Love.
If you haven’t heard the Christmas bells yet, here they are: I told you that we would circle back around to the “goodness” God revealed to Moses on Sinai. While that may be what Moses got, it was not what he asked for. Moses asked to see God’s Glory; God showed him His goodness (Exodus 33:18-19). Still, God’s deflection was not a “no,” it was a “not yet.” The world would have to wait another 1,500 years before God would reveal His Glory, but it wouldn’t be on Mount Sinai, and it wouldn’t look like pillars of smoke and fire. Instead, it would arrive in a most unexpected way.
No longer shrouded in mystery, the fullness of God’s goodness, and the presence of His Glory would manifest itself on a silent night, to a world desperate to know her King. This Jesus, humble in stature, lying in a manger, would one day fulfill the vocation of Israel to reconcile the nations to Himself. He is the Glory of God and answer to the prayers of every culture in human history. He is Immanuel, God with us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14 (NIV)
Other Passages to consider:
Lauren Botts currently serves as the Women's Minister at Severns Valley Baptist Church alongside her husband, Andy (Worship Pastor), and their two children, Ashton (10) and Cooper (8). She holds a Bachelor's degree in Secondary English and Language Arts Education from the University of South Florida and hopes to pursue her Masters in Theology at Southern Theological Seminary next Fall.