So far we’ve seen that God is compassionate, and gracious, and slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness, and abounding in truth. The next item in our list in Exodus 34.6-7 is “keeping lovingkindness for thousands,” but with your kind permission I’m going to skip that one and come back to it later, when we look into “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.”
So we’ll move to the next clause, which states that God “forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin.” The statement seems clear enough, but there are things to note here that will enrich our understanding of its meaning.
I’d like to start with the end. Why doesn’t God just say that he “forgives sin”? Why does he pile on the synonyms? I think he does this for at least two reasons.
- First, repetition in most languages is a means of emphasis, and in Hebrew particularly. A common Hebraism is to repeat a word so as to say simply “very” or “surely.” There’s an example of this right at the beginning of Scripture, where God tells Adam that if he eats of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ”dying you shall die” (Gen 2.17). Most English translations render that construction “You shall surely die” (KJV NKJV NASB ESV) or “You will certainly die” (NIV GW CSB). So perhaps here God is emphasizing the sinfulness of sin and the certainty of his willingness to forgive.
- But further, I think God is making the point that his forgiveness is as broad and deep and extensive as the very nature of sin itself. Cultures have lots of synonyms for words referring to concepts that they encounter a lot. There’s an old observation that Eskimos (Inuit) have lots of words for snow. As Nahum demonstrates, ancient Near Eastern languages had lots of words for locusts (Nah 3.15-17). And in both Hebrew and Greek, there are lots of words for sin. We humans have found that sin manifests itself in multiple forms and works with multiple methods and appeals to multiple human weaknesses. It’s a deep-seated, complex, exceedingly difficult problem.
The words God lists here are just 3 of many Hebrew words for sin. Each of these tells us a little more about the problem.
- “Iniquity” is ‘awon, used 232 times in the OT. It speaks specifically of being twisted, bent, or perverse, and it includes the guilt that comes from such perversity. Sin is brokenness, the kind that should be disgusting to us but sadly isn’t. It interferes with our designed function, much as a broken arm keeps the patient from writing or throwing or hugging in the way he was designed to.
- “Transgression” is pesha`. It speaks of crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed, of transgressing a boundary, and thus of rebellion, acting willfully, brazenly, and obstinately against the rules (Is 57.4). This is the kind of behavior in children that makes the grownups really angry.
- “Sin” is chatta’, a word that emphasizes that the act is an offense, a violation, and deserves to be punished.
Working backwards through the phrase, we come to the verb. God “forgives” all these things. The root means to lift (2K 4.36) or to carry (Josh 3.6), and thus to carry away (Gen 27.3), to dispose of (Ex 28.38)—of sin, to forgive (Gen 50.17; 1S 25.28). This is a burden the forgiver bears; he is the one who takes action to remove the offense.
God forgives—carries away—our sins, in all their complexity and multiplicity and pervasive rottenness. He throws them behind his back (Is 38.17), to the bottom of the sea (Mic 7.19), as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103.12). He knows all about them, and he can remember them, but he will not (Jer 31.34). “Omniscient, all-knowing, he counts not their sum.”
We should do that too. We should move toward those who disgust us, who revulse us, inexorably drawn to the image of God in them—as God himself is—and act for their benefit in seeking to liberate them from the overwhelming burden of the complex sinful condition they bear.
Doing that is an act of worship.
Hating them isn’t.