by Erin Bird
Today we conclude our God’s Bio series from Exodus 34:6-7. We’ve spent 7 weeks (with a 6-week “generosity-inspired” break) looking at the “bio” God provides about Himself to Moses. We’ve heard Him mention His name, His patience, His love, His grace, His faithfulness, and more. We’ve seen SO much about His character.
But there is one last vital part of God’s character He includes that can’t be ignored. It is a very important part of His character. But I will be honest – part of it will be a bit uncomfortable. To understand why I say this, let’s look at these two verses one last time:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, 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.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)
Before we can get to the uncomfortable part, let’s look at the first portion: “who will by no means clear the guilty.” This is God unveiling the righteous and “just” portion of His character.
As we’ve seen repeatedly through His “bio,” God is very, very loving and merciful. But He doesn’t want us to make the mistake of believing we can get away with anything. Truth and justice matter deeply to Him.
“But Erin, if He is so ‘just,’ then why does He punish the children ‘to the third and fourth generation’ for the sins of the parents? They haven’t done anything wrong!”
Yeah… I get it… that’s the uncomfortable part.
Or is it?
First, let’s recognize that God is a just God – and that is a good thing! Trust me, you don’t want a God who lets everything go. Imagine your loved one was murdered in cold-calculated blood, or a trusted individual sexually abused your child. You would want justice! So God being a just God is a very good thing.
However, it doesn’t feel “just” to hear that God carries the “iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children.”
To wrestle with this awkwardness, let’s put things back into perspective.
First, the punishment is for those who are guilty. Remember the first phrase – He doesn’t “clear the guilty.” So this “generational punishment” begins with the guilty.
Along with this, remember that over and over throughout His “bio,” God has been sharing about His immense patience, amazing grace, steadfast love, and forgiving heart. So God does not delight in punishing the guilty. That means He is only meting out justice upon the unrepentant.
Likewise, the disciplinary action only travels through the family generationally when the children hold to the same unrepentant attitude of the parent. Ezekiel 18 makes it clear that God holds the sin of a person only against that person – not the parent of the sinner nor the child of the sinner. Verses 19-20 sum up Ezekiel 18 like this:
“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:19-20 ESV)
So God is not unjustly making the grandkids suffer for the sins of Grandpa Joe, regardless of their hearts and actions. As the NET Bible Study Note puts it: “As in the ten commandments of Exodus 20:5-6, this expression shows that the iniquity and its punishment will continue in the family if left unchecked.”
Lastly, I want to point out that this “uncomfortable” portion of Exodus 34:6-7 actually shows God’s mercy, grace, and love just as much as the “happier” portions which came prior in the “bio.” What God wants you to see is that even when meting out “justice,” He only “visits the iniquity” to the third or fourth generation, yet when it comes to meting out grace, He visits that upon thousands of generations!
And how can God be so gracious? Because of what He has done for us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus! Our sin has been paid, Jesus absorbed the “iniquity of the fathers” (and of us), receiving the blow that we and our generations should have suffered, so that we might see and experience the overwhelming grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness of our patient Heavenly Father.
So may you see that God is a Just God, perfectly righteous, not letting sin go unpunished. But may you also see that through His perfect mercy, He took our sin for us so that we might be part of the thousands of generations that enjoy and bask in His goodness and grace.