One often hears that the God of the Old Testament is angry and cruel, while the God of the New Testament is loving and kind. But a through rather than a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that both testaments present the same God, one who is loving, merciful and gracious, as well as holy, righteous and just. The seminal passage on the character of God in the Old Testament (OT) is Exodus 34:6-7:
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘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.'”
The first thing we notice about the character of God here is that he is merciful and gracious. These two words are often found together in the OT. The mercy of God means that he is compassionate and has pity on people for the terrible mess in which they often find themselves. God is also gracious, meaning he freely gives what a person needs without pay back or merit on the part of the one receiving his grace.
We then see two very important attributes of God’s character, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. These two attributes are also often found together (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:7; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). God is slow to anger, he does not have a short fuse. God is patient when people act against his will. What this much repeated phrase means is that anger is not an attribute of God’s character. God becomes angry when people refuse to repent of their sins. The fact that God is slow to become angry is his way of calling people to repent and turn to him (Romans 2:1-5). Those who wake up to the patience and kindness of God and repent, find God’s forgiveness and love in abundance.
God’s forgiveness and love flow to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ. God’s righteous and just attitude towards sin is judgment. God’s love, on the other hand, motivates him to send Jesus to rescue us through the cross. It is not as though the justice and love of God work against each other, but his love and justice work together to provide us salvation. When we repent and trust in Jesus the floodgates of God’s steadfast love flows into our souls and lives. We are changed by the encounter with God. We have a new direction.
For believers in Jesus Christ the fact that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is precious indeed! It is the ground of our salvation in God’s very character. It also can give believers peace and joy as they daily battle sin in their lives. Sin is very serious, but God is not angry at us. His steadfast love flows to us in abundance because of the cross of Christ. We are forgiven. We are his children. This grace is not a license to sin, God knows how to deal with his wayward children, but the liberty to know him more and experience his presence in a greater way.