NOTE: This study on the character of God was written by Jean Sharp, a student in my course “Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.” For the complete series of studies on the character of God, visit “The Character of God.”
The revelation of God’s character and nature in Exodus 34:6-7 has given inspiration and life to the Israelite community beyond the scope of quoting the precise words of this text. However, to gain a framework for understanding just how influential and potentially foundational this text was for the liturgical life of Israel, a review of a few of its repetitions and echoes as they appear throughout the Old Testament will be explored below. Due to the constraints and limitations of this paper, each text will be briefly summarized for key attributes and conclusions pertinent to the credo of Exodus 34:6-7.
The fullest recitation of the Exodus 34:6-7 credo (though still altered) is found in Numbers 14:18, where once again Israel finds itself in YHWH’s bad graces with only Moses to defend the people. In this correlation, Moses appeals to the revelation of YHWH’s character, after also appealing to YHWH’s sense of national pride in the eyes of the “Egyptians” and the “inhabitants of this land.” Moses counts on God being faithful to the divine name expressed in God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7, and endeavors to change God’s lamenting spirit toward Israel. And YHWH does postpone the judgment of Israel, a lens through which God’s character as a relational God can be seen.
In Joel 2:13 Israel has found itself again outside the realm of God’s desired relationship. In his address to Israel the prophet describes first the impending day of judgment (introduction of the book), then an appeal to YHWH’s mercy as mentioned in the credo, and finally a message of hope (latter half of the book). The credo is again altered, reversing a few traits (compassionate and gracious), eliminating “and faithfulness,” and condensing the entire latter half of the credo to “and relents from punishing.” The credo becomes a “statement of faith,” from which the prophet draws to convince the people of Israel to hear the warning. The quotation of the credo is supposed to invoke in the minds of Israel God’s forgiving and abiding nature (and subsequently also de-emphasizing the last half of the credo). “The credo appears in a pivotal juncture in the poetic sequence in the call to repentance. After the lament based upon YHWH’s loving kindness, the overall mood of the book changes from judgment to hope.”
In an almost identical quotation of the credo, Jonah 4:2 exhibits another interaction with God in reference to God’s revealed character. The almost verbatim repetition of the credo in Joel and Jonah implies that the quotations in the two books are somehow mutually related to one another, though an inter-textual reference could be seen in either direction. However, in the book of Jonah God has already acted in favor of the Ninevites, an action that upset Jonah greatly, “Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious” (Jonah 4:1).
The prophet had delivered a similar message to the people of Nineveh—impending destruction and call to repentance. And when the people repented, God acted according to God’s nature. For Jonah, God’s decision was appalling. Most often, the credo was invoked within the covenant community of Israel. This illustrates some important points. First, the description of God’s character in Exodus 34:6-7 is not restricted on how God will act specifically on behalf of Israel (though it certainly includes them), but how God consistently and fundamentally acts on behalf of all God’s creation. While Israel has a special place in the way God is forming a community of people for God’s name, the purview of God’s nature as a merciful and gracious God is not limited to Israel. God will act in accordance with the revelation of his nature on behalf of Israel and on behalf of anyone who calls on him.
Second, the reaction of Jonah to God’s decision to forgive the Ninevites raises the issue of how this text was understood in its totality in the life of the community of Israel. When the character of God was misunderstood by Jonah, one wonders, in places where the credo was recited, how was the nature and character of God understood by those reciting the credo in a liturgical context?
YHWH changed his course of action after being appealed to through a reference to his character as a merciful God (Jonah 3:9), but not at the expense of the heart of the credo’s full revelation, which is that YHWH’s character acts with loving kindness, graciousness, and compassion in tandem with the fullness of redemption through the punishment of the guilty. In this case, Jonah sees the half of the credo that was not quoted—that YHWH by no means clears the guilty (Exodus 34:7) and thus he ostensibly anticipated action on YHWH’s part. YHWH’s rebuke of Jonah reveals the impact of YHWH’s readiness to relent as a true expression of YHWH’s character as revealed in the first half of the credo.
The Psalms also take up the credo in a few unique ways. Psalm 145, an acrostic psalm, exemplifies how the credo was utilized often in the life of Israel—as a reliable declaration of God’s affirmative traits. In verse 8, the psalmist declares: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” While employed in different ways throughout Israel’s history, most of the credo’s quotation leave off the entire second portion, as seen here, where God’s judgment and attitude toward sin are expressed. Interestingly enough, in the setup of the psalm, intergenerational language is used as the way to memorialize the acts of God (in the same way Exodus 34:6-7 alludes to the memorialization of iniquity intergenerationally). The credo is placed in the middle of the psalm and as a basis for the praise of the entire psalm itself. Additionally, the Psalm is placed at a culmination point in the structure of the Book of Psalms, and so illustrates the peak of the preceding psalms, making the credo the climax of the psalm. This pivotal place indicates how YHWH’s compassion and universal reign, through the positive attributes of the credo placed in the context of the psalm, are to be praised, counted on, and prioritized as manifestations of the true character of God.
Psalm 103:8, 17
Psalm 103:8 also quotes the credo nearly identical form to Psalm 145: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” In verses 9-10, the remaining wrathful section of the credo is not used, but God’s attitude toward sin and iniquity is still articulated in summary form, and referenced throughout by the use of the phrase, “to those who fear him.” The use of the credo affirms God’s goodness and mercy. The psalmist draws on the credo for strength and declares in worship the faithfulness of God and the trust that one can place in the stability of God’s character. Psalm 103 is a psalm of thanksgiving and a call to Israel to rely on the “kingship of YHWH.”
Psalm 86:5, 15
Finally, Psalm 86:5, 15 changes direction and cries out to God in the second person lament, calling on God to be faithful to his character as stated in the credo. The context of the cry is “the day of my trouble,” calling for preserving, gladdening, teaching, and showing favor. The dimensions of God that the psalmist calls upon here are also very comprehensive. From amid gods and nations, to a threatening band of ruffians, the psalmist has a surety of God that surpasses any obstacle, great or small. Therefore, the context of the appeal is within a framework that assumes an authoritative God that is at the same time trustworthy to the individual; in this knowledge, the psalmist invokes God to fulfill this expectation through the use of the credo. It is owing to the character of God that the psalmist expects to be rescued.
The presence of these three testimonies in the Psalms provides a few important observations about God and Israel. First, as a part of the worshiping life of the community, the collection of psalms provides not only a pivotal narration of Israel’s history, but also a formal codification of views about the character of God. These three particular psalms elucidate a unified message of God’s continued, reliable character over creation. This establishes the credo as a basic expression of Israel’s faith in YHWH and YHWH as a centralizing sovereign figure in the life of Israel. Second, the recital of the credo in the psalms illustrates its thorough integration into the life of Israel as a community. As a songbook, the lyrical interweaving of these core affirmations of God provides foundation for their use elsewhere in narrating Israel’s understanding of God and interpretation of God’s work in their context.
Nehemiah 9:17 provides the final glimpse into the way the credo functioned in the life of Israel. In the context of this recitation, the people of Israel have gathered together to make a corporate confession of sin and to worship Yahweh. In the recitation, the people recount the deeds of God in Israel’s history. And so, in the midst of the story of the stiff-necked people, YHWH’s character is proclaimed through the Exodus credo (again, not in its totality): “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” A reference to the credo of Exodus 34:6-7 is obvious through the formulaic recitation and use of particular phrases and words that were spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. Seen here, in the midst of the liturgical worship of the people of Israel, is the recounting of YHWH’s most objective and complete character testimony as “evidence of God’s kindness to rebellious Israel.” This integration of the credo into the life of the community as a regular part of ritual language and rite, confirms the credo as an assimilated part of Israel’s narrative, and as a foundational way to interpret God’s action in the world around them.
 Numbers 14:13-14.
 Perhaps a reference to Exodus 32.
 P.R. House, “God’s Character and the Wholeness of Scripture,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 23, no. 1 (2005): 9.
 Nathan C. Lane II, “Exodus 34:6-7: A Canonical Analysis” (Ph.D diss., Baylor University, 2007), 113.
 Dozeman suggests this in his article, “Inner-biblical Interpretation of Yahweh’s Gracious and Compassionate Character,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108, no. 2, 1989: 207-223.
 This is reinforced by the quotation of Psalm 145:9, which also extends YHWH’s compassion “over all he has made.”
 Lane, op. cit., 188.
 Verses 11, 13, & 17.
 Lane, op. cit., 179.
 This continues Dozeman’s point that the people of Israel used this liturgical credo in order to interpret their life with YHWH.
 House, op. cit., 13.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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