Christian Living,  Old Testament

When the Lovingkindness of God Leads to Disobedience

We often rightly rejoice in the lovingkindness of God. We see His goodness all over the place. His love for us is what compels the believer to obedience (cf. 2 Cor 5:14). It should go without saying that the lovingkindness of God is one of the most powerful themes of the entire Bible.

In fact, in the Old Testament, when God reveals His own character, He specifically zeroes in on His own compassion and lovingkindness as definitional characteristics He wants His people to know about.

Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

Exodus 34:6–7
Photo of seashell illustrating God's lovingkindness

God’s self-revelation is thrilling to read. God reveals himself as Yahweh, the personal and covenant God of Israel. He describes himself as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth. Amazingly, this self-revelation comes after Israel’s horrific covenant treachery of making the golden calf. Israel had just shown themselves to be covenant defectors. In response, Moses was seeking affirmation from God that He would not abandon Israel (Exod 33:15–16). Exodus 34:6–7 is God’s answer to Moses’s prayer (Exod 33:18).

God’s Lovingkindness is the Basis for Confidence in Yahweh’s Forgiveness

The description of God’s lovingkindness in Exodus 34 becomes the foundation for Israel’s expectation of God’s goodness and forgiveness. In fact, this text is often referred to in the Old Testament by later prophets and kings. For example, after proclaiming the Lord’s forgiveness and kindness, David quotes this passage in Psalm 103:8. David knows God’s goodness and kindness, and he has confidence in God because that is who God revealed himself to be.

Similarly, Nehemiah’s intercessory prayer for Israel is bathed in the confidence that God is a forgiving God, gracious and merciful, slow to anger (Neh 9:17). By quoting Exodus 34:6-7, Nehemiah is showing, like David, that confidence in God’s forgiveness is not found in man’s worth, but in God’s character!

Understanding God’s Lovingkindness Caused Jonah’s Disobedience

Interestingly, Exodus 34:6 does not always motivate worship and reverence of God. In fact, the story of Jonah tells a far different tale.

Most people are familiar with the story of Jonah. Jonah is commanded to go deliver a message of judgment to the people of Nineveh (Nineveh is the capital of Assyria). One would think that Jonah would be absolutely delighted to deliver a message of judgment against the city of Nineveh, since the Assyrian people had plagued Israel for many years. However, Jonah does the unthinkable and runs away from God and even attempts to die by asking the sailors to throw him into the sea!

Yet God arranges an instructive lesson on fishing for Jonah, and once Jonah comes to his senses, God again commands Jonah to go proclaim His message to Nineveh. So Jonah goes and proclaims this message: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4b). Because of this message of impending judgment, Nineveh repents from their sins and God refrains from bringing judgment upon that generation because of their repentance (Jonah 3:10).

It is in the fourth chapter of Jonah where the plot truly thickens. The reader gets a close up view of Jonah—who is furious that God decided to spare the Assyrians because of their repentance! Jonah’s complaint to God is essentially this: “I knew this would happen! That’s why I didn’t want to come.”

Jonah knew that if Nineveh repented, God would pardon them. Jonah gives his thinking as follows: “For I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2b).  Jonah quotes Exodus 34:6, knowing that God is gracious and compassionate, and he delights in forgiveness. Jonah didn’t want the Assyrians to have a chance to repent and experience the compassion of God. It seems Jonah knew that God’s character was such that if someone repented, forgiveness would come.

Learning Lessons from Exodus 34:6-7

On an individual level, the story of Jonah shows how one can understand a passage of Scripture properly, and yet apply Scripture wrongly. Because Jonah knew the truth about God’s character, he tried to prevent the Assyrians from having access to this gracious and compassionate God.

On the biblical-theological level, the book of Jonah functions to show that God is not just the gracious God of Israel, but He loves and cares for the Gentiles as well. The foundation of God’s self-revealed character does not just give Israel hope in salvation. That same hope also belongs to the Gentiles. Although Jonah tried to run away to prevent God’s compassion and mercy being experienced by the Gentiles, the whole episode ended up making a very powerful point—God also cares for the Gentiles.

Photo: Envato Elements

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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