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With all the talk of mercy this year – and especially today, Divine Mercy Sunday – do you ever wonder what it means that God IS mercy, or that his name is mercy?
You might recall that God told Moses at the burning bush that his name is I AM. But that only begins to say who he is. After the sin of the Golden Calf — when Israel turned on God just days after entering into a solemn covenant and promising loyalty to him — Moses pled with God on their behalf. In response, God had Moses stand in a cleft in a rock while he passed by and proclaimed his name again:
The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, The LORD [that is, I AM, I AM], 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….” —Exodus 34:6-7a
In short, the LORD’s name is mercy!
Those words of God became known by the Jews as the “thirteen attributes of Divine Mercy.” Because God IS these things, he can be approached whenever we are in need and even when we turn against God and repent.
You may wonder, as I did at first, how what seems like seven attributes can be counted as thirteen. The rabbis start by counting the name of the Lord (“the LORD, the LORD [a] God”) as three, and then continue from there:
- The LORD
- The LORD
The rabbis say that “The Lord,” Adonai, or “I AM”, is repeated for a reason, and it gives us two separate attributes.
—First: the Lord who created us solely as an expression of his love, is merciful from the beginning. Even before anybody sinned, even knowing that people would sin, he is characterized by mercy.
—Secondly, “the Lord” is repeated to show that even after we sin, he remains merciful. There is nothing that we can do to change who God is or to overwhelm his mercy. He continues to hold us in existence and call him back to himself, and he shows compassion on anyone who sins and repents.
“God” here is El in Hebrew: the Lord God, the almighty and omnipotent. El indicates his power as ruler over everything. He is “mighty to save.”
“Merciful” comes from a word meaning “womb.” This is God’s “mother-love”; his compassionate loving care for everyone created in his image, for all people (not just those of his covenant with Israel).
“Gracious” means to show mercy even to the undeserving. Grace consoles the afflicted and raises the oppressed.
- Slow to anger
God is long suffering. Patient. Slow to anger — which gives us time to reflect and repent.
- Abounding in steadfast love…
“Steadfast love” is hesed – a profound and loyal love based on relationship, a love that does not let go even when it is spurned. God abounds in loving-kindness on Israel even when they don’t deserve it, because they are his children.
- …and Faithfulness
Literally, this says God is “great in truth.” He is truthful and faithful at carrying out his promises. He never goes back on his word.
- Keeping steadfast love for thousands
Literally, he keeps steadfast love (hesed) for thousands of generations. He never forgets his covenant.
10-12. Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin
The next three attributes form a trio. It sounds redundant, but as you know there are many kinds and degrees of sin:
- “Iniquity” refers to intentional, premeditated sin.
- “Transgression” is sin committed out of rebellion.
- “Sin” here is chet: an archer’s term that means “to miss the mark.” These are sins committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or apathy.
God forgives (“carries away”) any and all of these when we repent.
That brings us to 12 — but the Jews count a 13th attribute. The passage goes on to say that God “will by no means clear the guilty…..” This may not sound like mercy, but the rabbis wanted to make it clear that God always forgives those who repent. So they affirm that phrase—that he won’t clear or cleanse the guilty—but then they state the positive: he will cleanse the guilt of those who truly return to him.
On the basis of this deep revelation of God’s name, Moses bowed in worship. He asked God to pardon his stiff-necked people and take them for his inheritance. Whereupon God confirmed his covenant and agreed again to accompany them to the Promised Land.
These words of God, together with his actions throughout Israel’s history that back them up, give God his name and define him as the God who can always be called on for mercy. And in case of any doubt, Jesus definitively demonstrated the lengths and depths of mercy to which God would go to, to save us.
Jesus, we trust in you!
Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
© 2016 Sarah Christmyer