“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).’”
What Moses sees on Sinai is a revelation of God’s name (Exodus 33:19, 34:5, 6), His goodness (Exodus 33:19), and God’s ways (Exodus 33:13; cf. Psalm 103:7–8). Moses gets a glimpse into the very heart of God and what he see is this, Yahweh is a God of mercy and justice. As you read through Exodus, is this not the epic glory you are overwhelmed with? In Exodus, the immeasurable mercy and fierce wrath of Yahweh sweep over one like a colossal tidal wave.
Some would think this a contradiction. How could a just God be merciful? At best this is only a paradox, though I don’t think it even rises to that level of perplexity. For there to be grace there must be justice or grace doesn’t mean grace. Grace presumes justice. Justice must be a necessary given for grace to have opportunity to exist. Only in an atmosphere of justice does any species of grace thrive.
By grace some take God to be an indifferent, impersonal fountain of rainbow bubbles. Indifference isn’t love and only a loving God can be gracious. Also, if God loves, this means he hates, for love hates that which is opposed to the object of its love.
What really bothers people about this passage is nothing they take it to mean of grace, but what they understand it to say about justice. Which is to say, they don’t like true grace, for grace presumes not only judgment, but guilt. But for those who have really seen God, what stuns them is His mercy. His wrath, though awesome as a river of blood to behold, is expected in its coming. It is grace that surprises and amazes. If you see God, your posture isn’t one of protest, but of petition. In the light of God’s glory Moses cried out for mercy and grace. It is not astounding that at the revelation of the Holy One so many bow. What is astounding, is that so often, for those He sets His love on, there is something in the beholding that leads them to believe that mercy is something they may cry out for.
As one ponders the cross of Christ, it is clear that there can be no contradiction between grace and justice, for there we see the fullest revelation of both. The glorious harmony of grace and justice that rang out from the cross ever reverberates through all creation and will forever resound to the glory of the crucified Christ.