Covenant Reformed News
July 2016 • Volume XVI, Issue 3
God’s Longsuffering in the Old Testament Historical Books
The very first use of the word “longsuffering” in Holy Scripture is found in the book of Exodus and on Mount Sinai. In this first biblical reference to longsuffering, God speaks of His own (not man’s) longsuffering: “And the Lord passed by before him [i.e., Moses], and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7).
The divine perfections that are listed along with longsuffering are “positive” (e.g., mercy, grace and goodness) and exercised for the salvation of God’s elect (“keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”). The Lord then goes on to speak of His “negative” work towards the reprobate: “and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (7).
This profound, divine self-revelation occurred against the dark backdrop of Israel’s terrible sin of worshipping the golden calf, contrary to the second commandment. It also came in answer to the prayer of Moses, the Old Testament mediator: “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory” (33:18). Clearly, God’s “glory” includes His longsuffering!
Jehovah’s immediate response to Moses’ intercession reveals additional and important truths about His longsuffering: “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy” (19). First, God’s longsuffering is a revelation of His “name.” Second, God’s longsuffering is a manifestation of His “goodness.” Third, God is absolutely sovereign in His longsuffering for, since He “will be gracious to whom [He] will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom [He] will shew mercy,” He will be longsuffering to whom He will be longsuffering.
After the Lord’s beautiful self-revelation (34:6-7), Moses’ response is twofold. First, he worships: “Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped” (8). Our adoration too should be prompted by God’s longsuffering with us!
Second, Moses prays: “If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance” (9). Organically and with respect to the elect in Israel, Jehovah, in answer to this petition, forgives His people and journeys with His inheritance towards the promised land.
The second biblical reference to longsuffering is also found in the Pentateuch. This time, it is Moses (not God) who speaks of Jehovah’s longsuffering. He appeals to this divine virtue in a prayer, after Israel’s wicked refusal to enter into the land of Canaan (Num. 13:1-14:10).
This is the part of Moses’ intercession (13-19) that is of special interest for our present subject: “And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying, The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (17-18).
Notice here two tie-ins with God’s self-revelation at Mount Sinai. First, Moses at Kadesh-barnea mentions similar divine attributes and works, and in the same order as in Exodus 34:6-7: “positive” and then “negative.” Second, Moses explicitly appeals to God’s words uttered at the holy mount: “as thou hast spoken, saying” (Num. 14:17). But notice which of Jehovah’s virtues is mentioned first here: “The Lord is longsuffering” (18).
Next follows the conclusion and central request of Moses’ prayer: “Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now” (19). This is swiftly followed by God’s gracious answer: “I have pardoned according to thy word” (20).
The third and final reference to Jehovah’s longsuffering in the Old Testament historical books is found in Nehemiah 9. This chapter contains the godly Levites’ review of Israel’s history, all the way from Abraham till after the return from the Babylonian captivity, with special reference to both Jehovah’s mercy and Israel’s sinfulness.
Nehemiah 9:17 reads, “And [they] refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger [i.e., longsuffering], and of great kindness, and forsookest them not.”
Unlike the two earlier historical references to Jehovah’s longsuffering, this text only speaks of God’s “positive” attributes and operations (“a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not”) and not His “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.”
Nehemiah 9 mentions the historical events that occasioned both of the earlier references to Jehovah’s longsuffering. God’s longsuffering at the end of Nehemiah 9:17 is sandwiched between Israel’s refusal to enter into the promised land (Num. 13-14) in the middle of verse 17 and the idolatry of the golden calf (Ex. 32-34) in verse 18. Here we see the glorious unity of Scripture, with the last text on God’s longsuffering in the Old Testament historical books alluding to the previous two! Rev. Angus Stewart