25 Apr 2017

Untamed God and Dangerous Grace

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exodus, Grace, Jonah, Precision Obedience, Romans

The Bible is a dangerous book about an untamed God full of dangerous grace.

I am not sure if the Bible is more dangerous to our patterns/structure that we invent or to “things surely believed.” But one thing the Bible continues to remind us to never forget is that God is God and is not subject to our doctrines and inferences.  Of all the truths about God it seems Scripture continues to say

God loves passionately.
God relents from punishing.
God does somehow deal with evil.
God will not submit to our system/pattern/doctrine.

As C. S. Lewis wrote of Aslan in Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, he is not safe and tame but he is good. These seem to be things you can take to the bank.

When God Operates Contrary to Our Box

Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2.13) is a powerful God truth rooted in the four statements listed above. It guides this section.

I believe in repentance. Jesus told us to preach “repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (not sure why we never quote Luke’s version of the Great Commission, it says nothing about baptism). Repentance is connected to the forgiveness of sins. God commands repentance. I believe in repentance. I preach repentance. See my article Repentance and Seasons of Refreshment.

Yet the Bible does not conform to our desires nor our neat little patterns, systems of doctrine nor things surely believed. Some of the greatest stories of mercy, grace and forgiveness in the Bible have one thing glaringly absent: Repentance!

I had read these stories before. I often assumed repentance was in these stories. I even imposed the idea upon these stories.  Truthfully sometimes I simply never stopped to notice what was actually in the text.


It was the Book of Jonah that first exposed how badly I had read my Bible and how the unseen lenses over my eyes literally changed the Bible to fit my patterns, systems and things surely believed.

In the Book of Jonah we will find:

King repenting.
people repenting.
animals repenting.
we even find GOD repenting.

But there is not a single solitary word of Jonah’s repentance. An instructive exercise is to read Jonah 2 and then read Psalm 51 and the Prayer of Manasseh (see my article to read this wonderful text, Prayer of Manasseh: Heartbeat of Jewish Spirituality).  The contrast between David (or Manasseh) and Jonah is not only stark it is glaring and intended by the narrator.

We have read the psalm in Jonah 2 and it sounds pious, sounds religious and even thankful … but there is no remorse, there is no repentance. Jonah is the master of religion but he is not humble and contrite before God. Every line in Jonah 2 is from the Psalter. Jonah has memorized “the prayerbook” and knows how to say the right things. He believes himself to be the purveyor of “sound doctrine.”

But there is not a peep from Jonah’s lips that sounds remotely like David in Psalm 51 or Manasseh in the Prayer of Manasseh.

Have mercy on me, O God …
Wash me, thoroughly from my iniquity ..
I know my transgressions …
you are justified in your sentence …
I was born guilty …
wash me …
create in me a clean heart …
do not caste me away from your presence [and Jonah wants nothing to do with God’s presence] …
restore to me the joy of your salvation …
I will teach sinners …
a broken and contrite heart …
(Psalm 51)

The contrast between Jonah and the Nineveh is glaring. They look like Job on the ash heap and they sound like David.

Jonah’s lack of repentance is highlighted in chapter 4 with his death wish (4.3, 9). But most glaringly is when he throws the God Creed back in Yahweh’s face (4.1-2, quoting Ex 34.6-7) as his motive for rebellion against the Lord. God’s willingness, his “pattern,” of relenting from punishment is the very basis of Jonah’s rebellion.


Jonah’s quote of the God Creed (Ex 34.6) is stunning and it is organically connected to our next story of our untamed God and his untamed ways. The origin of the God Creed is the Golden Calf episode (Ex 32-34). In a story that must be read together from Exodus 32 to 34, we find Israel returning to paganism. Moses storms down the mountain, smashes the covenant tablets of stone. Yahweh states he will destroy these ingrates and fulfill his promises to Abraham thru Moses (one should recall that Israel’s sin is worse than that of Nineveh, Israel has seen the wonders of Yahweh, but the Assyrians do not even know who this God is!).

Moses intercedes.
Yahweh forgives.
Yahweh renews the covenant with Israel.
Yahweh comes to dwell with Israel anyway.

What is conspicuously absent in the narrative in Exodus 32 to 34 is repentance. There is no confession of sin. There is no sacrifice of atonement. No plea for mercy from Israel.

Moses prays. Moses offers himself as atonement but God explicitly rejects the offer.  But, as in Jonah, there is not a peep of “we have sinned against the Lord” in any form.  There is nothing.

What we have in Exodus is a magisterial declaration from Yahweh that he has forgiven. This is where we read,

I will do the very thing you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight … and he {the LORD} said, ‘I will make my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, The LORD, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (33.19-20).

This is the Hebrew Bible equivalent of Jesus hanging on the Cross say “Father forgiven them …” Except it comes directly from Yahweh.

Then, in the morning, Yahweh utters the epic God Creed a few verses later in 34.6-7.

Yahweh, Yahweh,
God merciful and gracious
slow to anger,
overflowing with HESED and faithfulness,
keeping HESED for a thousand generations,
forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty.”

You will note that I have not quoted 34.7b. Not because I do not believe it however. But because it is likely not part of the God Creed itself as the grammar shifts from the self-declaration of God.  Also because when Jonah quotes the text, he drops v.7b and replaces it with “who relents from calamity.” That is Jonah interprets the Creed as a whole as not having to do with punishment but the absence of punishment. For more on the God Creed in Exodus 34.6-7 see my sermon here: “Preach the Old Testament #2: The Gracious & Compassionate God.”

In response, Moses falls on his face in worship. God’s words in 33.17-19 and 34.6-7 mean what they mean precisely because there was no “basis” for forgiveness other than God’s will to forgive. God forgave Israel because God is God.

Israel did not motivate God’s grace by providing repentance. Its absence makes the God Creed all the more epic. No wonder it is quoted and referred to over and over and over again in the Hebrew Bible. This is why Israel shouts to the heavens the Hesed of Yahweh nearly 150 times in the Psalter.

Jonah is exactly where the historical Israel was. God had showered grace and mercy upon him. God had saved him in spite of himself. Just as he had Israel. This is what makes Jonah’s attack up Yahweh and his plea for Yahweh to kill him so shocking. Such astonishing grace, given to Israel, would be a travesty if given to Nineveh. Jonah’s lack of repentance calls attention to the fact that he did not believe he needed Yahweh’s grace every bit, if not more, than the pagans in Nineveh.

On just how utterly pervasive the “God Creed” is in the Hebrew Bible read this: Exodus 34, The Pulse of the Bible.

A Note from the Apostle Paul

Is it any wonder that the apostle Paul goes to this very story in Exodus when talking about Israel in Romans 9-11 (9.14 citing Ex 33.19). Paul roots his words not in a theology of repentance or precision obedience (as much as Paul truly believed in true repentance and godly obedience!). Paul grounded his faith in the the God of the Golden Calf episode and the God of the book of Jonah.  The God who demonstrates those characteristics listed above.  So Paul quotes the Bible,

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? [the perspective of the prophet Jonah]
By no means! For he [God] says to Moses,

‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons of knowing that God is God is that God is not obligated to wipe out anyone, even people you and I may think deserve to be nuked as Jonah did. It is this fundamental disposition of God to “relent” that is the one thing that gives us all hope!

Those of us who believe we have repented, that believe we have fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law, that believe we have done precisely what God has commanded … the question that we need to ask is, did we really? Jonah has convinced himself that he has done those things.

I do not know how such people sleep at night. I am quite certain that in spite of my best efforts at self examination that I probably have never done any command of God precisely as Jesus would have done. That is the standard. So Moses, the author of Jonah, and Paul all hang their eternal hope upon GOD and his character.  I suspect the biblical writers are telling us to do the same thing.

Do not misconstrue what I have said. God does call us to repentance. But repentance is no meritorious act. And Scripture, in the most foundational narrative of the people of God, demonstrates God is God and mercy and grace are rooted in God’s own character.  This is precisely what Hosea quotes God as saying in Hosea 11.9, that is alluded to in the Book of Jonah!

I will not execute my fierce anger:
I will not destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no human,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

In the Book of Jonah it is the pagans that repent and not the people of God (= Jonah) who have the Bible and correct doctrine.  Perhaps this is why according to ancient Jewish tradition the Book of Jonah is publicly read from beginning to end on the Day of Atonement. We want to join the pagans on the ash heap and we praise the God who forgives and reveals himself in the God Creed in Exodus 34 and ultimately in the Messiah Jesus who forgave those who murdered him.

Conclusion … Jesus’s Brother was Correct

So I end where I began. The Bible is a dangerous book. If we read it as God gave it it will constantly tell us that our patterns, our systems and our things surely believed are not always as sure as we want them to be.

James, the Lord’s brother, understood this truth as much as anyone, existentially! He had openly ridiculed Jesus in unbelief (John 7.1-5). Mercy triumphed over judgement in his own personal life, that is why he pens those words in his little letter (James 2.13).

Now I encourage you to read prayerfully Jonah 1-4 and Exodus 32-34. Listen to what is actually there. The author of Jonah assumes you are deeply familiar with the story of the Golden Calf …

K. C. Moser once quipped that God’s grace is his glory He was correct. Note how glory is connected to the grace name in 32.17ff and 34.1-7.

God will rock our world.

Our response is that of Moses and Paul … fall on our face and praise the King of Glory.  God will not be tamed but God is good.

Why is it we praise God for grace? Israel knew why she shouted to the skies in gratitude. Because God’s Hesed is the only reason they are even alive and not dead.

3 Responses to “Untamed God and Dangerous Grace”

  1. Dwight Says:

    Bobby, I want to get your take on Deut.24:1-4 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife,….”
    Often we read into the law as we get into the NT that the guilty party must not be able to marry another, but the law says otherwise. According to the law when they are divorced for fornication or uncleanliness, both parties are allowed to marry another. There is no condemnation beyond the shame of being put away.
    We want God to punish, if not the guilty party, then the innocent party. Someone must be punished and not allowed to marry. Ironically Jesus states this same thing in Matt.19, except he states it differently. Divorce for anything other than the cause of fornication causes adultery, but divorce for the cause of fornication doesn’t cause adultery, in either party…same as Deut.24. They can remarry.
    What I find is that we interject punishment even when God interjects grace.
    We see God as the punisher, not as the lover of the weak and hurt.

  2. Dwight Says:

    A thought: We often read, “God’s ways are not our ways” and agree, that is until God’s ways interfere with our ways and then we fight back. We especially don’t like God’s grace, when we think judgment is due.
    In Deut.24 we read, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”
    What we have here is that a man finds his wife unclean (fornication as defined by Jesus) and then he divorces her and then she goes and marries another and is not condemned for that.
    What? Shouldn’t someone pay? Shouldn’t the guilty party be kept from marrying another? or be in adultery when she does?
    God’s way are not our ways.
    Only when, according to Jesus in Matt.19, is a person divorced for any other reason than adultery, when they remarry does it result in adultery, but not before or otherwise.
    “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” doesn’t translate into “God can’t put asunder and allow mending”.
    Here is a case of God showing mercy to both parties, the innocent and the guilty, that allows both parties to move on. Of course there is shame involved for the guilty, but they are not condemned for marrying again, when divorced for fornication.
    God shows mercy, when we would expect condemnation.

  3. Dwight Says:

    Oops, sorry for the double posting, as I got an “503 delivery error” on the first one and didn’t see it go through, that is until I redid it.

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