“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)
This description of God, that he is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament. The first place that this is heard is on Mt. Sinai, when the Lord passes by and shows all his glory to Moses, and utters these profound words about himself:
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Ex. 34:6)
Because they are God’s own revelation about himself, they are some of the most important words in all of the Bible about the nature of God. It begins with God saying his divine name, so holy that for thousands of years Jews including Jesus did not utter it out loud, even to this day. Then it describes his great mercy, patience and willingness to forgive even the worst sin.
This description of God comes up several times in the psalms (Ps. 86, 103, & 145 and others) and was probably part of many worship liturgies during Bible times. It is traditionally called by Jews the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” counting thirteen ways God’s mercy is described, though some are not obvious as we read it. The Jewish people still recite this every morning as part of their congregational prayers, and every time they read from the Torah. On Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, and on other fast days, many prayers focus on this verse.
In the Exodus passage, God says another thing about himself that is usually not included with the first verse when it it is quoted later in the Bible:
…Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Ex. 34:7)
The reason for not including this, according to rabbinic scholars, is because of the words of Ezekiel 18, which say that children who are innocent are not punished for the sins of their fathers.
They interpret the verse about God’s punishment of children as only applicable as long as the children do not repent, but carry on in their father’s sin.
While God does not let the unrepentant go unpunished, he is ultimately forgiving. Therefore, in Jewish prayers, they focus on the first verse about his mercy.
In the book of Jonah, this passage used in anger with God. God sent Jonah to Ninevah to warn them of God’s judgment, and Jonah ran the other way to Tarshish. Why? Jonah knew about the incredible cruelty of the Assyrians in war, who were well-known for the horrific things they did to their prisoners. He knew that of all peoples, they deserved punishment.
Finally, he did go to Ninevah to tell them to repent, and they did! When God saw how they turned from their evil ways, he did not bring the destruction he had threatened — and Jonah was outraged at God’s mercy. We read:
He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 3:10-4:3)
It is amazing to hear that Jonah is so furious with God for his forgiveness, he wishes he was dead. What a contrast between the emotions of sinful humanity and the grace of a holy, but compassionate God! While we usually look to the New Testament for stories of God’s mercy, we find one of the most powerful accounts of God’s grace in the Old Testament in the book of Jonah.
Christians sometimes think that the God of the Old Testament was an angry, unforgiving God, until he poured out his wrath on Jesus. Yet we see here that when God reveals himself in all his glory, he describes himself in terms of his grace, love and mercy.
His mercy runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Because Jesus says he does nothing but what he sees his father in Heaven doing, we know that his life and death reflects his Father’s great desire: that we be forgiven and reconciled with him.