God passes by Moses and he receives the classic declaration of God's character. The words and phrases of this declaration reverberate through the rest of the Old Testament.
The characterization of God in these verses takes on nearly creedal form in the Old Testament. In various forms it shows up in the Psalms (Psalm 103:8, 17; 145:8) and the prophets (Jeremiah 32:18-19; Nahum 1:3). It forms the basis for praise and petition (Nehemiah 9:17; Daniel 9:4). The Old Testament is astonished that God is slow to anger, merciful, gracious, abounding in steadfast love, and forgiving of iniquity, transgression, and sin. That God would do this for thousands is a true marvel, a reason for praise.
The eye of modern readers, however, seems to turn quickly to not clearing the guilty and visiting iniquity on three or four generations. There is a rush among Christians to claim that God is a loving Heavenly Father in contrast to the vindictiveness of the Old Testament God. The second portion of this characterization of God in Exodus 34 is cited as a warrant for such an attitude. But an astonishingly loving God is celebrated in the first portion of this statement; there is no need to rush to the New Testament to find grace.
It is perhaps an overstatement to claim that the Old Testament was not stymied by the language of "visiting iniquity," because it lived in a world in which an eye for an eye was assumed to be the way things are. There is no surprise in depicting the divine realm as punishing wrongdoing; retribution was occurring all the time in daily experience. But God being gracious where retribution was the norm astounds the Old Testament. Modern readers often begin with a sense that graciousness is a right or should at least be the norm. Despite a secular sense of "you reap what you sow," there is a religious presumption to grace. Judgment rather than grace violates modern religious sensibilities.
The creedal-like form of these verses may cause part of the difficulty. The genre of a creed implies permanence to the statements it contains. They become principles or givens apart from specific events. It is important to remember that God's being gracious or visiting iniquity are first and foremost events in the Old Testament. Jonah did not, for example, mind that God was in principle gracious; his fear was that God would actually act graciously to Nineveh.
6The 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,
7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,*
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the childrens children,
to the third and the fourth generation.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org