Everyone has a view of God. Whether you grew up with flannel boards in Sunday school or in an entirely religiously neutral household, everyone has some thought or emotion that comes up when the thought of God crosses your mind. Maybe God to you looks like a giant guy in a white robe on a wooden throne, impartial and impersonal. Maybe He looks like fire and rage that causes your palms to sweat every time you do something wrong. Or maybe He looks like an antiquated idea of how people teach their kids right from wrong. Everyone has thoughts about God. If you grew up reading the Bible, you probably noticed that all of the biblical writers wrote descriptions of God’s character. Maybe that felt like just more interpretation of how people viewed God, but didn’t really get to the source of what God’s character is actually like. It’s important to understand the backstory about how the Old and New Testament writers came up with their descriptions of God. Understanding the source may change the way you interpret God and the Scriptures altogether.
Let’s cut straight to the source
There are hundreds of verses in the Bible that talk about God’s character, and every single one of them is a reference back to one catalyzing moment in Exodus 34:6-7. At this point in the Exodus story, God has led Israel out of Egypt, shown numerous miracles like the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and leading the Israelites by a pillar of fire and smoke in the sky. Somewhere along the way, Moses — whom God has appointed to lead Israel — gathers the courage to ask God, “Who are You?” His exact phrase to God is, “show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18 NIV). Really what this means is, show me who You are. What is Your character? This is an absolutely crystalizing moment because for the first time, God is about to give a full description of Himself — who He is and what He is like. Before we get to what He says about Himself, think about this: You’ve found yourself in a new group of people, with whom you are going to spend the majority of your time for the infinite future. On the first day together, you are asked to stand up and basically give an elevator pitch of who you are as a person. Not things you like or hobbies, but who you are as a human. What are your characteristics? This is a defining moment, and you’d want to search for the things that are truest and most important to your being. That’s exactly what God wants to convey. In this brief moment, He is going to share the truest, most important characteristics of His being. The things He wants all of humanity to know forever.
What does God say about Himself?
So, here it is. When asked to show His glory (or His character), this is how God answers Moses: And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “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. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 NIV) Notice the pieces that are repeated. Those are the things God wants us to remember the most: He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness. He maintains love to thousands, and forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin. How many ways can He describe the ways He loves humanity and shows depths of compassion and mercy to us? Now, I know we all want to talk about the last half, too, because it seems weird and contradictory to a loving God, and some of you may have started sweating just reading that part. Stick with me, because we are going to roll through this kind of quickly, but I will list some sources that I highly recommend that really break down this verse in its entirety to better understand the nature of God.
God and punishment
“Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7 NIV) Let’s start by saying that this part of the verse is actually really good news. We want a God who does not leave the guilty unpunished. Remember that other article we wrote about the angst that rises up in all of us when we see injustice in the world? We want a God who sees injustice and responds. We don’t want a God who turns a blind eye to wrongdoing and just pretends like nothing is happening. But His punishment doesn’t negate His mercy. There is a fantastic breakdown of the importance of the juxtaposition of these two verses in the book “God Has a Name” by John Mark Comer. Read it. Trust me. Suffice to say, though, it’s important to remember that God has listed His love and mercy four different ways before He lists His justice. A CliffsNotes summary of what that means is simply that mercy outweighs judgment, but the two can and do coexist. A simplistic example of this is parenthood. As a parent, you have rules and boundaries for your children. They are put in place out of love and protection for your child. Now, what happens when a kid breaks one of the rules? For most parents, there is a warning period (mercy). Read through the Old Testament — there are warnings on warnings on warnings before there is ever punishment. This idea that God just snaps with anger is actually entirely contradictory to the God we see laid out in the Old Testament. You may need to go back and read the stories yourself, but chances are that if you have this view of God, you’ve been fed someone else’s cherry-picked interpretation of God’s character. Back to our analogy — so, there is a warning period. Then the kid breaks the rule again. OK, now there is probably punishment: time out, lose the toy, whatever is appropriate to the incident. It does not mean that the parent no longer loves the child. There is still mercy there. And in mercy, parents hold boundaries and rules for their children because it’s how they will learn about consequences in the future. Good parents parent out of love, even when punishment is involved. God is the same way. Of course there are consequences for our actions, but that doesn’t mean that God’s mercy is removed from us. Somehow our modern interpretation of mercy is a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows us to do what we want without facing the consequences. So when we do have to face consequences, we equate it to God’s anger. But that’s never what God described. What He actually says is that His love will never be removed from us, but there are still consequences. When we read what God actually says, the verse seems more reasonable, and frankly even welcoming. I want a God with boundaries and set rules, but also with love that knows no boundaries. And God gives us both.
Don’t forget about the kids
Don’t you worry — I haven’t forgotten about the last piece of the verse that makes everyone cringe. Let’s clear this up right away — God does not punish kids for the sins of the parent. In fact, there are laws in Exodus that explicitly state the opposite. And in 2 Kings 14:6, when a band of men who executed a horrific murder of the king were put to death, and the people wanted to kill the entire male lineage of the murderers as well, God quickly stepped in and stopped them: Yet he did not put the sons of the murderers to death, but acted according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the Lord commanded: “Fathers must not be put to death for their children, and children must not be put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” (Berean Study Bible) God protects the innocent. So, if God isn’t punishing children for the sins of the parents, what does this verse actually mean? “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:7 NIV) In the original Hebrew translation, this line has a few meanings. One is that a parent’s sin has consequences for the child. It’s uncomfortable, but we know this is true. A parent is an alcoholic; there are consequences of that decision that the child is forced to live with. A parent has an affair and breaks up the family; there are consequences the child has to live with. What God is saying here is that there are sins that have generational consequences, and we need to be made aware of it. While other people may not be punished for our sins (again, original translation here is very different), the consequences of our sins can and will bleed into the lives of others. God wants us to know this so that we take sins seriously. It’s not just our lives at stake here — it’s the lives of those around us. Our sin has the power to create death (figuratively) in the lives of those closest to us — the death of a proper childhood, the death of a stable home. There are consequences that pass down from generation to generation. The other translation focuses on the consistency of God’s punishment. Remember the culture in which this was written; individualism wasn’t really a thing. You did what your family did. That was that. So, God is telling us here that His punishments (i.e., His rules and boundaries) remain the same through the generations. If your father was punished for worshiping idols, don’t think that you are off the hook for worshiping idols. There is not one familial punishment for sin (which was a common thought in that time); rather, each generation is responsible for their own choices. See, when we look at the actual translation, that piece of the verse is not nearly as uncomfortable — and frankly, comforting in its own way.
We covered a lot here about God’s character, and we’ve only looked at two short passages in the entire Bible. But these two passages are the crux of what God says about Himself. If we understand the source, then we can hold the rest of the Bible up to this standard to see if what God says about Himself is actually true. Spoiler alert, it really is. It incredibly is. Here are some of the additional sources that I’ve read over the years that do a great job of really breaking down the characteristics of God: P.S. NONE of these links are affiliated with this site or anything related to our work here. This is simply a list of books that may help you understand God a little better. “God Has a Name” by John Mark Comer “Jesus > Religion” by Jefferson Bethke “What Is God Really Like?” by Craig Groeschel “Irresistible” by Andy Stanley