When Yahweh proclaimed His name to Moses He proclaimed His goodness (Exod 33:19) and this essentially sums up the force of Yahweh’s attitude towards His people. An integral part of that goodness is mercy, grace and longsuffering. These three words appear a number of times in the same verse throughout the Old Testament, so we will consider them as a three­some. But first we need to accurately understand their individual meaning.

Merciful

The Hebrew word translated “merciful” is rachuwn and means “mercy, compassion”. The idea is il­lustrated by the tender feelings of a father for his children. So the Psalmist, in a psalm that is really a commentary on the events of Exodus 32–34 says, “Like as a father pitieth his children, so Yahweh piti­eth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust” (Psa 103:13,14). Again, speaking of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel in the wilderness, the psalmist records, “But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath. For he remembered that they were but flesh; a wind that passeth away, and cometh not again. How oft did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert” (Psa 78:38–40)!

So this word speaks of the understanding and tender feelings of pity we should have for the dif­ficulties of others, even though we, like Yahweh, may never have experienced them ourselves. It does not blind us to the abhorrence of sin. It does not prevent us from dealing with it. But to enter into another’s soul and feel with them what they have experienced in their weakness and so to understand their behaviour, is the meaning of “merciful”.

Gracious

The Hebrew word is channuwn and describes one who loves to show favour and kindness to others. It speaks of the generosity of God toward man. He doesn’t delight in the destruction of the wicked. He finds no satisfaction in bringing misery and suffering upon humanity. He much prefers to shower us with good things, as any parents who love their children will know. He owns all things and yet only gives us what is good for us, because He is favourably disposed toward us. He is not one to hold a grudge. He cannot do it because it is not in His nature.

So when a pitiful man, or nation, wallowing in sin, unable to rise above himself, frankly acknowl­edges this before God and earnestly seeks His help, “rending his heart and not his garments”, Yahweh is moved by that. Like the father who saw his lost son a great way off, He runs to meet him, rejoicing in his restoration. As with the Father, so it is with all the heavenly community. “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:7).

Those who claim to be children of God must learn to be like their Father (Matt 5:44–48). We need to be generously disposed toward our brethren, seeking their welfare, allowing for their failures, encouraging rather than criticising and complain­ing, trusting rather than suspicious, preferring to see good in them rather than evil. This is not ignoring evil, but it is the meaning of “gracious”.

Longsuffering

This expression is made up of two Hebrew words, arek meaning “slow” and aph meaning “anger”. Hence, “slow to anger”. God is not easily irritated. The former two characteristics lead Him to lengthen out the offers of His mercy rather than punish im­mediately, and wait to be gracious rather than to destroy. So “the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing”. Under these conditions, when judgment finally comes it is perfectly considered and just.

God gives every opportunity for man to repent. He provides His prophets according to Jeremiah’s characteristic expression, “rising up early and sending them”. He warns continually of impending judgment and rests not until there is no remedy. When the situation finally reaches a point where it can be said, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jer 13:23). The long­suffering of God reaches an end. God works with people, rebuking and chastening them, looking for repentance, until it becomes evident that they have reached a point where sin has become so habitual that they cannot change. Then He destroys them.

It was like this for the world in Noah’s time, the Canaanites in Joshua’s time, the men of Judah in Jeremiah’s days, and the Jews in Jerusalem when besieged by the Romans. It will also be the state of the world when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to “tread the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God”. It is precisely because God is “slow to anger” that men imagine He will never intervene and so they become hardened in ignorance and sin. When they boast of God’s “slackness concerning his promise” (2 Pet 3:9), they only prove how unlike Him they really are. If God could be made in their image, He would have destroyed them long ago. But He is not like man. We must learn to become like Him, even in the face of insult, slander and misrepresentation, for He endures all these things and waits patiently for better things. The lesson is there for us: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).

Merciful, Gracious and Longsuffering

Our final consideration is to observe that these three characteristics of Yahweh are often used as a ‘threesome’ in the Scriptures. Invariably, the context is a recounting of God’s dealings with stiff necked Israel. Consider these passages:

Nehemiah 9 recounts the history of God’s deal­ings with wayward Israel. In verses 16 and 17 the Levites remember the incident of the golden calf:

“But they and our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, and refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebel­lion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not.”

Psalm 103 is built around the events of Exodus 32 to 34. It overflows with gratitude for the forgive­ness of God for “iniquity, transgression and sin”. In verses 7 to 12 the Psalmist recalls the intercession of Moses:

“He made known his ways unto Moses [pro­claiming His Name], his acts unto the children of Israel. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.”

The psalm expounds the characteristics of the “merciful”—a Father who pities His children, knowing our frame; of “gracious” generosity—“who satisfieth thy mouth with good things, so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s” and “slow to anger”—“He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger forever”.

Joel 2 records a terrible time in Judah’s his­tory, when all the curses of the covenant had fallen upon the guilty nation. Drought, locust plague and a mighty northern invader had come upon the land. This was Yahweh’s army He had sent against them. But even as they hammered upon the city to destroy it, the prophet was offering dramatic Divine intervention if only they would repent. In chapter 2:13 he says, “And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil”.

Even at that late stage, if Judah showed genuine repentance. Yahweh would “do great things” for them. Why? Because His natural characteristics disposed Him to do them good, not evil. The day will come when the northern army will come again and “in those days and at that time” Israel will repent and He will save them.

The Divine characteristics of mercy, gracious­ness and slowness to anger do not prevent Yahweh from punishing the wicked. But in all His judgment He is yearning for an opportunity to show kindness. Yet He will not, cannot, until genuine repentance is evident, because this is the only way that really benefits anybody. He relents from the full fury of His wrath again and again until there is no remedy. “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more” was Isaiah’s observation of Judah (1:5). What else could now be done? So He sent the Assyrian to destroy them like Sodom and Gomorrah, except for a very small remnant (v9).

The day is coming when those who have walked with God in their generations will rule the world with “the powers of the age to come”. God will entrust them with the power to heal and save, or afflict and destroy, because they have learned from Him how to use it. Even in wrath, He will remem­ber mercy (Hab 3:2). The disposition of those who inherit all things will not be to destroy indiscrimi­nately, but to look for opportunities to show mercy, to teach, to heal, to inspire faith and to bless. They will be “gracious, merciful, longsuffering”.