Context or Pretext: Examining Exodus 34:6-7

There are two types of people: the guilty and the unguilty. This is John Piper’s interpretation of Exodus 34:6-7. Piper attempts to answer the question of what God meant when he says he will “by no means clear the guilty.”

God has created covenants with his people from the beginning of his restorative objective since the Fall. He renewed covenant after covenant so that he could continue his promise to a broken people and eventually restore his creation. The law, introduced in Exodus after the Hebrews escaped Egypt and acting as a perfect guide for Israel, only spurred on the peoples’ need for a savior (Galatians 3:19-22).

Reading through Exodus, God gives them the law, but Israel is immediately found worshipping idols instead of the one true God who loves them. Moses destroys the tablets, rebukes his people and walks back to Mount Sinai to create a new copy of the law. 

Before Moses creates the new tablets, God describes himself as, “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 fourth generation.” – Exodus 34:6-7

Of course, God is indeed forgiving, and he will continue to forgive all iniquity and trespasses, but what may catch the reader’s eye is the phrase John Piper aims to explain: “by no means clear the guilty.” He wisely looks at other texts like Ezekiel 18 and Jonah 3 and concludes that God’s intention of clarifying his standing with “the guilty” is to separate two types of people — those who will eventually be cleansed by Christ’s blood and sacrifice and those who refuse to believe he is Lord and savior of all.

I don’t fully disagree with Piper’s view. However, I don’t believe the view fully explores what the passage is truly getting at. I would like to look at this interpretation in the context of a larger picture of the grand narrative of Scripture. 

From a plain view of the text, it looks like God introduces an immediate tension between his character and what he will have to do to restore his creation. The passage almost seems to call God a characteristically and eternally just God who, by the conflict of his creation, now must partially sacrifice or compromise that same characteristic for the sake of reconciliation. 

First, praise the Lord that this is not the case. By looking at the original text when God gives the law in Exodus 20, God clearly had two types of people in mind. He uses specific phrasing, like “those who hate me” and “those who love me and keep my commandments.” This directly supports Piper’s interpretation.

Even with this observation, the question of what God means when he says “by no means clear the guilty” still pulls at my mind. “By no means” sounds fairly concrete to me. What does this mean considering Christ? Am I not the guilty one?

Second, it would be logical to adopt a broader view of Exodus 34, considering the way God describes himself in the chapter sets a foundation for a multitude of other descriptors used throughout his Word. God is described the same way in Exodus as in Isaiah, Daniel, Hebrews and many other passages. 

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” – Psalm 103:8

Christians experience God’s forgiveness and grace every day. Even those who persecute Christians experience his grace without even knowing it (Matthew 5:45).

Leading into the gospel, God’s intention for the law was to show his creation their need for a Savior because perfection meant reaching the same level of character as God, which is, of course, impossible (Galatians 3:19-20). 

The purpose of the law, along with the redemptive mission of God seen in Genesis 3, is to point to something almost prophetic from the Old Testament perspective.  

Also, remembering God’s perfect character and understanding he would never do anything to compromise or contradict himself, his certainty in saying he will “by no means clear the guilty” must compliment his forgiveness, grace and mercy. 

With all this information packaged up, one must assume that Exodus 34:6-7 is prophetically speaking of God’s sending of Jesus Christ as the savior. People cannot look at verse 7 and immediately feel tension or an attack on their salvation. Instead, verse 7 combines God’s forgiveness and God’s unquestionable justice to ultimately bless those who believe in him. 

He will forgive. This is good. He will never hold back his justice. His justice is crucial to the subject of salvation and as equally perfect as his forgiveness. If God withheld his justice even to the slightest bit, how would Christ have acted as the full propitiation for our sins? 

God’s saying he will “by no means clear the guilty” only adds to the certainty of his love and affection for those who love him. God is a compassionate, forgiving, merciful, steadfast and perfect God. His immovable justice adds to his love just as much as the other “nicer” traits he generously carries.

Duvall is the opinion editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter

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