God, merciful and gracious: themes in The Prophets

That God’s grace is central to who God is and how God relates to human beings, is a fundamental claim in the writings of Paul. This affirmation is key to the extended theological,discussion we find in Romans, Paul’s longest letter, where Paul affirms that those who believe “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

After citing the example of Abraham, justified by “the righteousness of faith” (4:13), which means that the promise rests on grace (4:16), Paul explains that, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (5:1–2).

So Paul rejoices that “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, [has] abounded for the many” (5:15), and he tells the Romans that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). It is God’s grace which marks the life of those who believe in Jesus as Messiah—the Messiah who, in an act of supreme graciousness, “while we were still weak, at the right time [this Messiah] died for the ungodly” (5:6).

Even when considering his unbelieving brothers and sisters in Israel, Paul insists that “God has not rejected his people” (11:1), for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29); accordingly, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5), demonstrating that God remains persistently faithful to God’s people, for “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6). God’s grace is the key.

This key theological motif is signalled in the standard greeting that we find at the start of every one of Paul’s seven authentic letters—“Grace to you and peace”, or some minor variant (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; and Phlm 3). The greeting appears as well in many of the other letters collected in the New Testament (Col 1:2; Eph 1:2; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim Q:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; 2 John 3; Rev 1:4).

A blessing of grace also closes each of Paul’s authentic letters (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; Phlm 25) as well as a number of other letters (Col 4:18; Eph 6:24; 2 Thess 3:18; 1 Tim 6:21; 2 Tim 4:22; Tit 3:5; Heb 13:25; 2 Pet 3:18) as well as the very last book of the New Testament (Rev 22:21). Each time, it reminds us of this central theological claim about God: God is a god of grace.

In reporting on the activities of Paul, the writer of Acts notes that his preaching told of the grace of God (Acts 13:43; 14:3; 20:24, 32). Indeed, in a rare moment of theological concordance, Peter is said to have concluded his speech to the council in Jerusalem with a characteristically Pauline flourish, affirming that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11).

So God’s grace is central to early Christian understandings of God—and the fourth evangelist places it front and centre in his portrayal of Jesus, “the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us”, known to us as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). (None of the Synoptic Gospels employ the precise term; many commentators, however, influenced by the predominance of grace in Pauline theology, interpret the way that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins—Mark 2:10 and parallels; Luke 23:34; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38—to be an expression of God’s grace.)

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as being seated on “the throne of grace”, which we are to approach “with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). The letter attributed to James affirms that God “gives all the more grace”, citing the text that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6, quoting Ps 138:6), whilst 1 Peter closes with a claim that was is contained in that letter reveals something of “the true grace of God” (1 Pet 5:12). That God is gracious is a fundamental theological claim in the New Testament.

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This is not a new insight into the nature of God, however. Centuries before, faithful Israelite people had grasped the same insight and expressed it in clear and unambiguous ways. The prophet Joel attests that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

The same note is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

It is the very same affirmation about God which an explicit priestly writer placed on the lips of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6).

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), once the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship of the Lord in the Temple, informing the people that “the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chron 30:8–9).

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah affirmed that God pledges to the exiled people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, and then affirms that “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness”, and continues by restating that “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer 31:1–3).

These are the opening words of the chapter that contains Jeremiah’s most famous oracle, in which God promises, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31–34). That is deep, deep covenant love, expressing God’s thoroughly grace-filled character.

Later still, as the people returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, praising God as “a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a cry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another psalm, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in yet another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this God, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom people of faith turn in regular prayers of supplication and petition.

So we need to let go of the archaic and inaccurate claim that “the God of the Old Testament is a god of wrath, the God of the New Testament is a god of love”. God, in both testaments, with equal intensity and equal integrity, is a God of love, abounding in steadfast love—a God of grace, indeed!

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Alongside this strong prophetic affirmation of the grace of God, there is a similarly-strong thread that insists that God will judge the people of God in accordance with their faithfulness, or infidelity, to the covenant that God has made with them. Thus, alongside the God of grace in texts of the Hebrew prophets, stand many texts about the wrath of God, to be delivered on The Day of the Lord. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/09/12/the-day-the-end-themes-in-the-prophets/

How are we to reconcile these two aspects of God? That is the task that our biblical witness invites us to undertake for ourselves!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians, Pentecost 2C, 3C, 4C)

As the epistle is the lectionary for this Sunday and the following two Sundays comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, here is an Introduction to Galatians.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins in a dramatic, striking fashion. Almost all of Paul’s letters begin with a prayer of thanksgiving, designed to strengthen the relationship between Paul and those to whom he writes.

Not so in Galatians: in place of a friendly thanksgiving, Paul launches straight into a devastating criticism of the Galatians (1:6–9). In quick succession, he criticizes their activities, attacks the beliefs they have adopted from their teachers, and invokes a curse on their heads. What do we make of this language used by Paul?

Strong language is not uncommon in Paul’s letters. It was also widespread amongst the educated class of the day, who had been taught how to mount a strong and effective criticism by the careful use of rhetorical techniques. Rhetoric was taught to privileged young (male) members of Graeco-Roman society—which would have included Paul.  

So Paul uses familiar rhetorical techniques to address the situation in Galatia. Other teachers had visited the Galatian community, and had taught the Christians there things that were at odds with what Paul was teaching. Paul uses rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to dissociate themselves from the teachings that apparently had been so effective amongst them.

If we knew precisely who the Galatians were, what group of teachers had been active amongst them, or what specific matters caused Paul to write this letter, we might be better placed to adjudicate on this matter. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of information.

The letter is sent to communities of faith in a whole region (Galatians 1:2), not a single city or town. Acts indicates that Paul visited there with Barnabas: he visited Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14–14:23) and later with Timothy (18.23). But we learn no further specifics of the Galatian churches from Acts. (There is a similar vagueness about the date of the letter: “late 40s or early 50s” is most often cited.)

The key themes of this letter relate to the Law, freedom, and unity.

The gospel that Paul proclaims makes believers “one in Christ”. This unity overshadows all divisions: as the most famous words in this letter declare, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (3:28).

The threat against this unity has arisen through the insistence of other teachers that true faith requires, first, circumcision (2:12; see Acts 15:1, 5). Paul asserts that these other teachers want their followers to be circumcised—although surprisingly, he notes, they themselves “do not obey the law” (6:13).

Paul claims that the “circumcision faction” were preaching “another gospel” (1:6) in which they actually “pervert the gospel” (1:7). He calls them “false believers” (2:4) who have “bewitched” the Galatians (3:1). His vehemence at one point is such that he exclaims, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (5:12).

Paul’s problem, of course, is that he himself is circumcised, as he mentions at Philippans 3:5 (a fact that he omits when he rehearses his past at Galatians 1:13–14). How can he advocate the opening of the faith to those who are not circumcised, when he himself bears this sign of the covenant?

He insists that the Galatians “become as I am” (4:12), and yet threatens that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). What applies to Gentile converts must be different from what is the case amongst Jewish converts.

Circumcision was the pre-eminent sign of the Law for Jewish believers. Paul wants to move the Galatians away from their understanding of the Law. He re-interprets the scriptural passage that lies behind this Jewish custom. Galatians 3:1–5:1 thus contains a tightly-argued, complex argument concerning the Law.

Paul uses the story of Abraham, the patriarch to whom the requirement of circumcision was first commanded, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). He interprets this story without once mentioning circumcision (3:6–18). It is the faith of Abraham, in believing God’s promise, that secured him righteousness (3:6–7) and opens the promise to Gentiles (3:8–9). It is that promise which is now fulfilled in Christ (3:13–14, 16, 29). This is the pathway to freedom in faith.

This letter demonstrates that freedom is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul offers this freedom anew to the believers in Galatia. The Gospel frees them from the complex web of duties and responsibilities under the Law.

The call to freedom (5:1, 13) becomes a platform for ethical guidance, grounded in love (5:13–14), manifested in living by the spirit (5:22–26), not by the flesh (5:16–21). This ethic requires believers to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2) and to “work for the good of all” (6:10). In this way, they will become “a new creation” (6:15). The gospel, which brings liberation in community (3:28), will also lead to liberation for the creation (6:15).

Galatians is important because of the central theme of freedom that it articulates. In what ways does your faith provide you with a sense of freedom?

Gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2; Ash Wednesday)

The Hebrew Scripture passage set by the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent, is part of an extended announcement by the prophet Joel (1:13–2:17), calling the people of Israel to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13), “sanctify a fast” (1:14), “blow the trumpet” (2:1) in order to “return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). He exhorts the people to offer a prayer to “spare your people, O Lord” (2:17).

The prophet makes this call in the midst of describing “the Day of the Lord” that is coming—“a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1–2). He evokes the traditional imagery of repentance—sackcloth and lament, weeping and mourning, prayer and fasting—as the appropriate responses to that Day, even as he utilises the traditional imagery of the doom that awaits on that Day.

The prophets warned of the Day of the Lord; it will be “darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18), it will come “like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa 13:6), as “a day of distress and anguish” (Zeph 1:14). Joel joins his voice with this parade of doom: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1–2).

Yet the response desired is not meek acceptance, but rather to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12). “Return to the Lord, your God”, Joel advises, highlighting the central purpose of the role of the prophet, to recall the people from their waywardness and lead them to recommit to the covenant with God, which lies at the heart of the identity of the people of Israel. That’s probably the reason that this passage from centuries before the time of Jesus (let alone our time) is set for Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent begins.

The tradition about Lent is that it is a time for “giving up”, for restraint and abstention and ascetic practices. However, Lent is also a time for returning; for re-connecting with God, for turning back to depend on God, for returning to the heart of faith. And this passage helps to remind us of that purpose.

The passage also provides a further thought which undergirds the call to “return to the Lord”, and that is what it says about the fundamental nature of God. Joel repeats a mantra that must have been important to the people of ancient Israel; an affirmation about the nature of God, the one who, in the midst of the turmoil of the Day of the Lord, stands firm as the one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

For, although the Lord is credited as the one who demonstrates his wrath on the Day of the Lord, this divine figure is also one who is willing to step back from the threat of judgement and destruction, who is willing to give a new opportunity to a repentant person, and reach out to them in grace. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?”, the prophet asks. And so, he advocates that the people leave “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13–14). The process requires maintaining a tangible sign of the intention to return to God: an offering, in ancient Israel, a marking of ashes, on Ash Wednesday, for Christians.

The mantra that Joel offers about God is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

The same affirmation about God is made in the story of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34:6). This citation, however, does maintain the ominous threat that this same Lord is yet “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”, so the picture is fuller and more realistic here.

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), after the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship 9f the Lord in the Temple, exhorting the people, “do not now be stiff-necked as your ancestors were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger may turn away from you” (2 Chron 30:8).

It was a time to “return to the Lord”, and Hezekiah encouraged the people, especially encouraging northerners who had suffered under the Assyrians to return, saying “your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” (2 Chron 30:8–9). That same mantra appears.

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, and then returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, confessing that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh 9:16).

Ezra continued in praise of God: “you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a fry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in still another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this aged, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom we turn on this Ash Wednesday, seeking to return to our foundational commitment.

For further reflections on Hebrew Scripture passages offered by the lectionary during Lent, see

See also