What Makes Yahweh God?
Judgement, Mercy and Forgiveness
Sabbath Day Sermon: Saturday 4 August 2001
Once upon a time there was a little 6 year-old girl who asked her father: "Daddy, what's God like?" It's the kind of question almost any child might ask. I know most of mine have. It's one of the simplest questions there is and yet, how would you answer it? You have got to be able to convey to a child's mind the most basic truth of the Universe - the nature of our Heavenly Father.
Who is our Heavenly Father? What is He like? And what do scriptures like, "God is love" actually mean? (1 Jn.4:8,16) I think this is a wonderful place to start in explaining who God is. Small children are uncomplicated and unsophisticated. Most have an instinct for what "love" is before adults come and start complicating things by defining love the way they want it to mean.
Although we know that God's Name is Yahweh it would be very difficult to explain the exact meaning of that word to a small child. Still, it is right and proper that the child should know the true Name of God because we are told that it is by this Name that we are saved. Speaking of the very last days and of the tiny remnant of believers, the prophet Amos said:
"And it shall come to pass
That whoever calls on the name of Yahweh
Shall be saved.
Among the remnant whom Yahweh calls."
(Joel 2:32, NKJV)
Obviously it would be quite useless calling upon the name of "Allah", "Krishna" or "Buddha" if we want to be saved. It is in the one and only true God, Yahweh, that we must trust in order to be saved.
As I have taught you before, calling upon a Name means more than just pronouncing a word. When we call upon a particular Name, we call upon the power and personality of that Name. Unlike the god of the New Agers which is an impersonal force, Yahweh is a person with characteristics.
Every single person in this room has a set of characteristics that are so unique to that person that we say they are a unique personality. And whilst we may occasionally find others who are like us, there isn't single soul - past, present or future - who is our spiritual twin. We have been made completely and utterly unique.
So we have told our little child that God is love and that His Name is Yahweh. But the Scriptures also teach us that He goes under a number of titles that tell us more about Him. For instance, the word "God" in English is rather unfortunate because we use it to translate four different Hebrew words, each of which tells us something important about Him.
The first word we translate as God is El which means "Mighty One". From this we learn that Yahweh is "mighty" or "strong". That is easy enough for a small child to understand.
The second word we translate as God is Elah which describes Him as an object of "worship". Simply stated, He is to be worshipped. What do we mean by "worship"? The word "worship" means many different things but principally it is to show devotion, deep respect, adoration, or admiration. When we say that we worship God it means that we place Him as the highest and most important Being in our lives, that we adore Him, show reverence towards Him, praise Him in song, word and deed - in short, you might say that He is a kind of "hero" - one we look up to. There is no-one more wonderful, more fantastic, more loving, more attractive. To worship God means that we think the world of Him.
The third word we translate as God is Elohim which is the plural of El. This is also used very commonly in the Bible. It means, on the one hand, that whatever you think of as being the "highest", the "best", the most "wonderful", or whatever, that God is yet "higher", "better" and more "wonderful" still. About all you can say is that whatever you imagine to be the "best" falls short of what God actually is. It means that we cannot begin to imagine what He is like in the full revelation of Himself. On the other hand, the word Elohim means that God is more than one Person. Whereas Yahweh is one Person and is the Name of our Heavenly Father, and whilst Yahweh is God, God is not Yahweh. The Bible teaches that God consists of Three Persons - the Father (Yahweh), the Son (Yah'shua/Jesus) and the Holy Spirit (Ruach haQodesh).
The fourth word we translate as God is Eloah and is the most common usage in the Hebrew or Aramaic New Testament. Like Elah it means the Deity one worships. So really we can combine Elah and Eloah together.
Putting all these four together we come up with a description of God whose Name is Yahweh and who is All-powerful, the One who is to be worshipped, who is bigger and more wonderful than we can ever imagine, and who consists of Three Persons - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And finally, we are able to say that He is love.
As our small child listens, she is able to start picturing what God is like in her mind. But next we must try and describe a bit more about what it means when we say that God is love. And to do that I am going to base the rest of my sermon on a passage of Scripture which confuses people a lot but which gives us so much knowledge about Yahweh that I think it is priceless. Here it is:
"So Yahweh changed His mind and did not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened" (Ex.32:14, TEV)
What is the background to this passage? Well, the children of Israel had escaped Egypt under Yahweh's mighty hand and travelled through the desert experiencing the miraculous provision of food and water. And then, in spite of all they had seen - Yahweh's greatness and loving kindness in rescuing them from slavery, they openly rebelled by building a golden calf and worshipping it. No other people has ever seen such dramatic miracles save for those who were witnesses of Christ's resurrection. What possible doubt could there have been in their minds? One miracle after the other, miracles which no human could imitate, miracles which Satan and his occultic priests were incapable of duplicating. And yet they rebelled.
Moses was up on Mt. Sinai talking with Yahweh when all this happened and what was His reaction? Yahweh was angry. Very angry. He told His prophet:
"Go back down at once, because your people, whom you led out of Egypt, have sinned and rejected Me. They have already left the way I commanded them to follow; they have made a bull-calf out of melted gold and have worshipped it and offered sacrifices to it. They are saying that this is their god, who led them out of Egypt. I know how stubborn these people are. Now don't try to stop Me. I am angry with them, and I am going to destroy them. Then I will make you and your descendants a great nation" (Ex.32:7-10, TEV).
The first thing we learn about God from this passage is that love also includes righteous indignation or holy anger. And that makes modern man in particular, who is so influenced by New Age ideas, uncomfortable. They don't want an angry God. They want one who is always smiling and nice to them, and gives them whatever they want.
Now it is not difficult for a little girl to understand how sometimes her Daddy gets angry when, say, big brother is deliberately naughty. She understands, even if she doesn't like to see anyone angry, that anger can be based in love. If one of my adult children, for instance, got involved in an international drug racket or mugged an old person in the street, I would "see red" and get very angry. Indeed, every time I read of paedophiles abusing small children a red hot fury wells up inside me.
This is very different from the unrighteous anger that results when someone breaks a commandment and refuses to repent. They are angry because they have sinned and won't say sorry. This is not the kind of anger that God displays.
From this we understand that sin makes God angry - not a hateful anger, but an anger that is prompted by deep hurt against goodness within. And why was He specifically angry in this case? Because they were stupid enough to believe that a lump of metal had led them out of Egypt and done all the mighty miracles? Because they were stubborn? Because they rejected His commandments? All of these were good reasons to be angry. But perhaps the greatest sin was to equate the Creator of the Entire Universe with a lump of metal - they were saying that God was just a bit of matter.
Let us imagine that you have risked your life and suffered unspeakable hardships to rescue someone from a life-threatening situation. How would you feel if the person you rescued then turned around weeping and looked in a mirror and then thanked himself? Or thanked a potato lying on the ground? Or a light bulb on the ceiling? That would be mild in comparison to what those Israelites did because in worshipping the Apis bull they were committing the worst blasphemy imaginable - they were worshipping Satan! And what this event tells us is that if you worship - regard as the most wonderful, the greatest, the most adorable - anything or any person, which belongs only to Eloah or Elah, you are, in fact, worshipping Satan. For the object of Yahweh's enemy is that you should worship the creature rather than the Creature.
But that isn't probably what upsets most people about the passage that I read in the beginning. After Yahweh had threatened to destroy the whole Israelite nation with the exception of Moses' family, Moses pleaded with God not to do this, saying:
"Lord, why should You be so angry with Your people, whom You rescued from Egypt with great might and power? Why should the Egyptians be able to say that You led Your people out of Egypt with great might and power? Why should the Egyptians be able to say that You led Your people out of Egypt, planning to kill them in the mountains to destroy them completely? Stop being angry; change your mind and do not bring this disaster on Your people. Remember Your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Remember the solemn promise You made to them to give them as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and to give their descendants all that land You promised would be their possession forever" (vv.11-14, TEV).
And then, we are told, Yahweh changed His mind and did not destroy the people after all. Many question that God should ever be angry at all. Many question that He should change His mind about something. And yet we must deal with a God who can become angry, and we read much about that in both the Old and New Testaments. Even Yah'shua (Jesus) was angry on occasion, and especially with religious hypocrisy.
That God is emotional tells us something very important, namely, that in some ways He is like us, even though He is without sin Himself. He has thoughts and feelings just as we do. And that is why we do not just call Him "God" or "Yahweh" but also Father. He's like a Daddy, but because He is God, He is infinitely bigger and more perfect that our earthly Daddy can ever be. And yet he's like Him.
But still people cannot accept there is such a thing as righteous anger. When I was investigating Buddhism I was taught that anger is "negative" and "bad" and that we should always be calm. The following story I hope will show how dangerously wrong such an idea is.
Let us imagine a row of terraced houses - houses joined together. And let us imagine that the walls between the houses are very thin so that we can hear through them, as is sometimes the case. The people living in one of the houses get suspicious because they hear screams of tiny children coming from the neighbour's house where an unmarried couple live together. They have noticed the bruises on the children's arms and legs when they have played in the street. But the neighbour on the other side of the house is quite undisturbed. He carries on puffing his pipe and reading the sporting news in his newspaper. He hears the agonised cries but does not stir. But the other neighbour "sees red" and marches off to bang on the door, and because there is no answer, he telephones the police. Now who do you think is the better neighbour of the two? Who in fact is the better person? The neighbour who ignored the cries of pain or the one who got angry and went over to pound on the door?
Now Yahweh would not be a good God if His anger was never aroused, even though the Bible says He is very slow to anger. He would be callous and unfeeling if He had no anger - one might even say that He was an inhuman monster - worse, He would be an undivine monster. A person who does not react angrily to someone being abused has no heart and therefore no love. And the fact that someone is cool and collected and does nothing does not mean he is loving. In fact, the very opposite. He is demonstrating that he has no love at all.
What this means is that if we really believe in a God of love that we must also believe in a God who can, and does, exhibit righteous anger from time to time. Now I know a man whose son was screaming in pain because of a pierced eardrum. He was bleeding and writhing in agony. But the father was cool and calm, but did nothing - he just carried on reading his book. This is a true story. Someone nearby was angry - really angry - because he was so heartless towards his little boy. Who of the two was the more loving?
Our little girl should now understand that righteous anger is a sign of love but at the same time be able to distinguish this from unrighteous or evil anger. Anger itself is not wrong - it's the type of anger that matters, and what it is that promotes the anger - is it goodness or evil?
My father once got very angry with me when I was a little boy because I jumped over his bonfire. What I didn't realise at the time was that it was love which made him angry. He was concerned that I might burn myself. But at the time I just heard the anger, which frightened me, and I ran off into the jungle to hide. When God is angry there is a good and holy reason.
But why, having got really angry with the Israelites and threatening them with death, did He suddenly change His mind?
Before I answer those two questions, I would like to remind you of one other thing - namely, the reason the Israelites built a golden calf. Moses had been away for days and there was no leader they could see. Yahweh, moreover, only ever revealed Himself visibly to choice and obedient prophets like Moses. Very few people have seen Him. And the people wanted a god they could see and touch. They wanted a god they could relate to with their physical senses.
But Yahweh isn't like that. He chooses to be an invisible God, and for good reason. He wants us to love the invisible and eternal qualities of life like goodness, compassion, patience, mercy, and holiness, and not visible three-dimensional things. That is why He forbade the making of images. Images - whether physical or mental - do not contain these desirable qualities. They are merely empty things.
Let's also remember the excuse that Aaron gave for making a golden calf - it was the most pathetic excuse anyone could think of. And the reasons for idolatry are always incredibly stupid. Aaron said this: "The people gave me their gold, I threw it into the fire, and out came this bull-calf!" Bull! What nonsense! And yet Aaron forced himself to believe it in order not to repent.
Now this is a very common pattern and I will explain. When someone's faith dies in them - the faith that made them into good and healthy believers, they don't usually sit down and say to themselves: "Hmmm, I wonder what other god I can substitute for the true God?" do they? People don't ever consciously "decide" to "change gods". What actually happens is that they discover that other things have somehow already taken the place of the real God, almost automatically. When you lose faith in the true God, other things quickly fill up the space left empty without us really noticing.
And God rightly gets angry. The true God becomes replaced by a false one. He is angry because His sovereignty has been supplanted. God is angry on behalf of the people because their choice means moral and spiritual decline for the whole nation. It's the kind of anger that Yah'shua (Jesus) displayed - anger with whatever was responsible for hindering people from achieving the high calling of which they were capable. I call this compassionate anger, anger in which there is a basis of mercy. So judgement there is in the heart if God, but compassion is there too. He takes pity on us because He cares.
So Yahweh is angry then He changes His mind. This is the great proclamation of this Scripture. God is not inflexible. God is not without mercy. God is ready to hear the cry of all who turn to Him. What is more, God is ready to hear the cry of sinners who turn to Him. What is even more still, God is ready to hear the cry of those who turn to Him in intercession on behalf of others. Where will you find in all the scriptures in the Bible up to this point a window into the very heart and character of God? And is there anything more important that we should know than what Yahweh is really like? For it is with Him that we must ultimately deal. He's the One who decides everything in the end.
Yahweh changes His mind showing that He is both a God of judgement and mercy. The false god of the other religions knows no mercy - he is hard, uncaring, judges and punishes unmercifully. He ties everyone up in karma and you must simply suffer your punishment until you've paid the price. But not the true God. If He were only a God of judgement He would be a tyrant. If He were only a God of mercy, there would be no standards - no Law, therefore no order, and thus chaos. Anything would 'go'. But He is a God of both judgement and mercy. And it's that theme which totally dominates the Old Testament. Thus it is we read in the Psalms: "My song shall be of mercy and judgement: unto Thee, O Lord, will I sing!" (Ps.101:1, KJV)
But mercy and judgement is not an easy combination, as everyone who becomes a parent soon discovers. It is in fact a costly combination, even for God, and especially for God. This is what is meant by "changing one's mind" in this context - the King James Version uses the verb "relent" - because it implies an inner battle to achieve it.
All of this points to the third and last principle in the character of God and that is forgiveness. No one who has not grasped the concept of forgiveness has really understood the central message of the Bible. This is why the story of the sin of the Golden Calf and what followed is so important. Forgiveness costs. It costs terribly. It costs because mercy and judgement battle together in the act of forgiveness.
Those of you who have seen the video film in our library about the Dutch Christian woman Corrie ten Boom who was put in a nazi concentration camp which killed her father and sister will know what I am talking about. She nearly starved to death in prison. She was degraded with the other women who were often paraded naked in front of smirking German guards. After the war she helped other Christians in helping German civilians rebuild their destroyed lives again.
One day she was attending a Church service in Munich (München) where she spoke. Afterwards a happy smiling man came up to her and thanked her for her message, and gratefully said: "To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!" And he stretched out his hand to shake hers. Then she recognised him. He was one of the jailors in Ravensbrück concentration camp who had stood in front of the wash house door jeering and mocking the wretched women who stood stark naked shivering in a long queue, some having to be held up by others, because they were so weak and sick. Said Corrie ten Boom: "I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again, I breathed a silent prayer. "Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness." As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened ... into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me."
You see, forgiveness is costly because in it mercy has to do battle with judgement, but if mercy wins and forgiveness is offered, it is achieved through the grace of God, because that is what God is like.
So the cross of Christ remains forever as the historical witness that in the heart of God judgement on sin still stands, but mercy also stands and triumphs. And that is what this passage in the Book of Exodus means - it is the first revelation on the forgiveness of God.
In the Lord's prayer we pray to Yahweh: "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us". To be in right relationship with God - to be pure and spiritually chaste in His eyes - we must first forgive all those who have wronged us. We must do battle between judgement and mercy and ask Yahweh to give us the victory which is forgiveness. If judgement rules in our hearts without mercy, we are spiritually dead, cold and lifeless. Only forgiveness can liberate us from that and allow that river of love to once more flow into our hearts and make us joyful again.
May Yahweh bless us all to forgive those who have wronged us in any way so that we may obtain the forgiveness of God for our own wrong doings, which are many, and so finally be free and happy. Amen.
This page was created on 18 October 2001
Last updated on 18 October 2001
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