The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 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 34:5–7)
So far we’ve seen the name of the Lord - I AM - and something of God’s patience, mercy, love and faithfulness. This “steadfast love” extends to thousands and is “abounding”. Today we focus on the end of this short passage which, at first glance, presents us with something of a paradox.
On the one hand we read that God forgives “iniquity and transgression and sin”, but on the other hand we read he “will by no means clear the guilty”. So which is it? There’s more, too. What is all this business about “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children… to the third and fourth generation”?
The answer to all of this is to realise that guilt and forgiveness can stand together. Sin is something which separates us from God, something which makes us guilty in the eyes of God. God has, however, ordained a way in which that guilt can be transferred to another. When these words were uttered, the whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament had been given to Moses. The guilt could be transferred to a goat - a scapegoat - which would be sacrificed. In fact the whole sacrificial system was based upon the understanding that sin deserved death, and the death of an animal would stand in the stead of the death of the person.
This, of course, is the understanding which lies behind the Cross. Jesus dies in our stead, our guilt on his shoulders. We are given a way in which we can deal with our guilt, The offer is there.
And the business about the third and fourth generations? It is an acknowledgement that sin is something which affects whole households. In the ancient world families lived together, up to three or four generations at a time. The actions of one person would affect the whole household, a person who decided to follow a path apart from God will inevitably bring consequences on the family as a whole. It is simply not good enough to think that sin doesn’t hurt anyone else. It does, even if that harm is second hand.
But in all of this don’t lose sight of the mercy. Yes, we may be guilty of sin but God himself has given us a way of dealing with it. You can try and minimise it, ignore it or explain it away. Or you can transfer it to Christ. That is the glory of the Gospel.