We’re exploring God’s foundational description of himself, on the assumption—well founded in Scripture—that we ought to treat others the way he does. We’re getting to the end of the list, where there’s a cluster of attributes that we really need to discuss together.
Exodus 34.7 puts it this way:
yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.
We’re tempted to find this troubling. God’s a hard master, demanding perfection and beating us when we fall short, and even bringing our grandkids into it.
Oh, that’s not what this passage is saying at all. Like all of God’s other attributes, this is a good one, one to delight in.
To begin with, let’s observe that he brings justice to the guilty. There’s no reason we ought to look askance on that. In fact, if you’ll think about it, we all want justice, when people have wronged us. The only situation in which we don’t want justice is when we’re the guilty one—or when of one our friends is.
Test yourself. Suppose someone committed a heinous crime against your family, and at his trial the judge said, “Look, I know you’re basically a good person. If you’ll promise not to do anything like this again, we’ll just forget it ever happened.”
How happy would you be?
Not at all. We want justice.
The world’s an unjust place. There’s abuse, and fraud, and falsehood, and violence, and murder. We have justice systems, but we often don’t get it right. We ought to do better. And it’s good—a delight—to know that there’s someone keeping records, who has the power to right all these wrongs, and who will certainly do so.
So the first clause is a good thing. God will right all the wrongs.
But what about the rest of it? What about visiting the sins of the fathers on the children? How is that just?
Well, God has designed the universe so that if you do right, things generally turn out better than if you don’t. (Yes, in a sin-broken universe it doesn’t always turn out that way, but that’s still very much the pattern.)
Now, suppose I kill somebody. I’m not the only one in my family who’s going to be affected by that. I’ll go to prison or even be executed, sure. But my wife will have to carry on without my help, and my children won’t have a Dad—and if they’re school age, they’ll face the reproach of classmates, and on it will go. Because of that trauma, there may well be ongoing effects in their children, and even in their grandchildren. Three or four generations.
God has designed the system that way, and the design encourages us to do the right thing. That’s a good thing.
But maybe there’s still a little itch inside you that wonders if he couldn’t have designed things better than this.
OK, it’s time to broaden the context.
The first time this principle is stated in the Bible is just a few chapters earlier, in the Ten Commandments. Here’s the specific wording:
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Ex 20.5b-6).
“To thousands” of what? The context is clear: to thousands of generations.
How long is a thousand generations? 20,000 years? 25,000 years?
I’m a young-earth creationist. I don’t think the earth has even been here that long.
Yes, sin carries consequences that involve more than the sinner himself. But grace—that goes on forever. Where sin abounds, grace superabounds (Rom 5.20).
So here in Exodus 34, I think we can tie several clauses together—
- who keeps lovingkindness for thousands [of generations], …
- yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished,
- visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.
This is all one attribute: he maintains justice while extending mercy far beyond the reach of the most heinous sin. He does all things well.
And what of us, and the way we treat our enemies?
Justice. But superabounding mercy.