The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Psalm 103:8 ESV
The conquest of Canaan seems quite barbaric through modern eyes. Under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor, the Israelites ceased their forty-year wandering through the wilderness and entered the land that God promised to their ancestor Abraham. Of course, the land was far from empty. Various peoples inhabited Canaan, so God commanded the people of Israel to take it by force, putting to death all the people of the land and taking none of their possessions for themselves.
While this wholesale slaughter that God commanded (and Israel did not fully obey) sounds excessive, we must understand first that Israel acted as instruments of God’s judgment upon the idolatrous people. And second, even in midst of God’s righteousness judgment upon the Canaanites, we find another rather surprising attribute: His patience. Back in Genesis 15, when God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham (at that time, he was still Abram), He foretold that Abraham’s descendants would sojourn in a foreign land for 400 years as slaves, and after that time, God would give them Canaan. He then explained to Abraham why the conquest of Canaan did not begin in his own day: “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). This means that before God’s divine judgment He gave hundreds of years of patience toward rampant and unrepentant sin.
SLOW TO ANGER
A. W. Pink began his study of the patience of God by saying,
Far less has been written upon this than the other excellencies of the Divine character. Not a few of those who have expatiated at length upon the Divine attributes have passed over the patience of God without any comment. It is not easy to suggest a reason for this, for surely the longsuffering of God is as much one of the Divine perfections as is His wisdom, power, or holiness, and as much to be admired and revered by us. True, the actual term will not be found in a concordance as frequently as the others, but the glory of this grace itself shines forth on almost every page of Scripture. Certain it is that we lose much if we do not frequently meditate upon the patience of God and earnestly pray that our hearts and ways may be more completely conformed thereto.The Attributes of God, 61.
I have found Pink’s words to be a reality. Among all of the resources that I have been reading for this study of God’s attributes, very few of them specifically address the patience of God. God, however, explicitly reveals this attribute of Himself, especially within the Old Testament, though He often does so under a different phrase: slow to anger. For instance, in the great passage of Exodus 34:6-7 (which we have already cited many times before), God passes His glory over Moses, proclaiming His name and His character to the prophet, saying,
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 the fourth generation.
Fittingly, a similar list of attributes appears many other places, such as:
The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.Numbers 14:18
They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them, but they stiffened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.Nehemiah 9:17
But you, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.Psalm 86:15
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.Psalm 103:8
The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.Psalm 145:8
Yet my favorite example of these attributes is found in Jonah 4:2-3, when the embittered prophet after witnessing the repentance of Nineveh cites these glorious perfections of the goodness of God as the reason for wanting to die:
And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
God’s patience, His slowness to anger, is intimately bound to His love, His grace, and His mercy. He is slow to anger, patiently forgoing His righteous wrath, precisely because He is love and delights in showing mercy and giving grace over executing His judgment.
Yet if we do not consider carefully, we might begin to assume that God’s patience is merely one facet of His mercy, since both involve God’s relenting of His wrath against our sins. Yet Charnock makes a pointed distinction between the two, noting,
It differs from mercy in the formal consideration of the object: mercy respects the creature as miserable, patience respects the creature as criminal; mercy pities him in his misery, and patience bears with the sin which engendered the mercy, and is giving birth to more.
Charnock, therefore, saw mercy as meeting our miserable guilt after having committed sin, while patience is God’s willingness to bear with us in the midst of our sinning and even as it is “giving birth to more.” This alone should be enough of a truth for us bow our heads in worship! God’s love is not only revealed to us after having sinned; He actively shows love to us even while are still sinning. Indeed, the very breath in our lungs and the continued beating of our hearts as we sin are tangible evidences of God’s great patience toward us.
But we must also connect God’s patience to another one of His attributes: His omnipotence. The citation from Numbers 14:18 above is preceded by verse 17, which reads, “And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying…” Moses, therefore, prayed that the LORD is would reveal His awesome power through slowness to anger toward the Israelites. Similarly, Nahum 1:3 places God’s patience and power side-by-side, saying, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.” Finally, while Moses prayed for God’s power to be seen through His patience toward His people, Paul also notes that God’s present patience toward the children of His wrath also reveals His power:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.Romans 9:22-23
God’s power is displayed through His patience. He is able to be patient with sinners, for He is sovereignly working all things for His glory. Although sin is first and foremost against the glory of God, He does not need to enact immediate justice in order to defend His honor. Absolute power can be patient precisely because it cannot be thwarted. Thus, God’s patience inevitably reveals the vastness of the Creator’s might.
As with each of God’s attributes, the applications for us here are numerous; however, let us focus upon two. First, as God’s people who are called to be imitators of Him, we must be patient as He is patient. In Galatians 5:22, Paul lists patience as being one of the fruits that the indwelling Holy Spirit produces within the life of a believer. He also lists patience as a key virtue to “put on” as followers of Christ in Colossians 3:12-13:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
With God Himself as our supreme example, we should actively strive to kill anything within us that causes us to lash out impatiently at those around us. But perhaps we could apply our call for patience most pointedly toward our families. For being those whom we love most, are we less patient with anyone than our spouse, children, parents, or siblings? We often feel free to show our impatience toward them because we are so comfortable around them. Yet even with our immediate family, we must still show patience, reflecting the goodness of our God to those dearest to us. In fact, let us meditate this crucial point: impatience toward others is not a minor personality quirk; it is a sinful failure to imitate God.
Second, we must heed the words of James 5:7-8,
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Twice James calls us to be patient, as if the return of Christ is still a long way off, yet he ends verse 8 by declaring that “the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Indeed, both are true. Although we live nearly two thousand years after James penned his letter, our Lord’s return is still at hand. We know not when it will come, but it will come suddenly and swiftly. And it is nearer today than it was yesterday. However, because we do not know the day or hour of His return (or even whether it will occur during our lifetime), James calls us to patience and steadfast endurance, knowing that our blessed hope will soon appear.
Indeed, Peter attributes our present time before Christ’s second coming as an act of God’s patience. After addressing scoffers who mock the Lord’s coming and pointing out that God’s timing is unlike our timing, 2 Peter 3:9 states plainly,
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
How much more, therefore, should we wait patiently for Christ’s return once we know that He is being patient toward us, giving a little more time for some to reach repentance? After all, His patience against the ungodly will not extend forever; His judgment against them will one day come. As for us, let us rejoice that on that day our patience will be made complete as we enter the presence of the Patient One.