Tumbling in the Sand
“The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” – Psalm 145: 8
“for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” -Jonah 4:2b
This is two times that this phrase shows up in the Hebrew scriptures. Actually, it shows up a lot more: Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:8; and Joel 2:13. The phrase is also made reference to in Nahum 1:3 and in Ecclesiasticus 5:4, where they mention that God is slow to anger, but that doesn’t give lease for infinitely flouting God’s call for repentance and justice: judgement will eventually come.
This is clearly an oft repeated and well known text about God, one that would have been said all the time by the community. Almost a creed, even. Certainly not as important as the She’ma (Hear O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one..), but probably as important and central as our ubiquitous and regular assertion that “God is love.” With such phrases, it’s easy to forget what they mean and just kind of take them lightly. Which, I guess is why Nahum and Ecclesiasticus serve as correctives … but then so does Jonah: reminding the community how radical God’s grace and compassion is—extending far outside the community to those who aren’t included in our sense of inclusion (see my previous post: “It’s not fair”).
What I find really interesting and powerful about this assertion that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, is that it is first made by God’s self in Exodus in the second giving of the law. Maybe you remember the story: Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to retrieve the law, written on stone tablets from God. He’s gone a long time. While he’s gone, the Israelites get tired of waiting on this slow God and absent leader and so they make a golden calf to worship (and claim that that calf is the god that brought them out of Egypt). Moses gets a bit ticked when he returns and shatters the stone tablets on which the law is written, grinds up the golden calf and makes the people drink the gold dust mixed with water. Then there is some killing of the people who had headed the whole thing up. It’s not pretty and really, one can imagine God being ready to just leave these ridiculous people behind and find some group that is a little more reasonable. Instead, God listens to the repentance of the people and God agrees to give the law to them again (which is a huge part of the revelation and promise of God in the Hebrew scripture). When Moses goes to get the second set of tablets, God speaks as God’s glory descends upon the mountain “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Essentially, this is a statement of second chances, and third chances and fourth chances. The Israelites screw up. God is bigger than their mistake, and more generous than they can be with themselves (if you doubt that, check out the gospel text). God tries again with them … and again, and again, and again. In fact, God never gives up on them. Joel takes that to heart in his prophetic book, proclaiming that the day of the LORD (God’s judgement) will be terrible, where the moon and the stars will stop shining and the earth with quake and the heavens tremble… but then he says: “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart … Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind…”
I guess what is so gracious about all of this for me, is that I have a tendency to want to get it exactly right or I don’t want to do it at all. I think it’s called perfectionism. The promise of God’s statement here is that it’s not about getting it all right; instead it’s about falling down and getting up again and trusting that, even though we fail, we do not fall beyond God’s grace and that frees us to try again: not to be perfect—not to do it perfectly this time—but to trust and stumble along believing that even though we fall, it is the LORD that is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing. God is love.