THE GOD OF A THOUSAND GENERATIONS
Exodus 20:5, 6
1. If I had to offer a starting point for understanding how life works, I would suggest the surprising statements of these two verses.
a. “Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation”
b. “Showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation”
2. There is in these sayings a truth that does not change as we turn the calendar from one year to the next.
1. A Consistent Theme of the Scriptures
a. Exodus 34:7-9
b. Numbers 14:17-19
c. Jeremiah 32:17-19
2. A Thought Crucial to Our Knowledge of God
a. God deals with us on the basis of who he is.
i. That’s why he will not allow us to make him into an image for ourselves – anything we might make him into would not only dishonor him, but would also misrepresent what we can expect out of life.
ii. We are to tell the truth, not because God arbitrarily decided to command it of us, but because he is trustworthy and requires the same of us.
iii. We are to practice sexual purity, not because God just chose to limit us, but because, both male and female, we are persons made in the image of God and are thus to be treated honorably.
b. This does not change from one generation to another.
i. You’ve noticed from the passages we’ve read that whether it’s three or four generations or a thousand, he God deals truly with us.
ii. He is not the God of a generation or of a particular era; he is God from everlasting to everlasting (Ps. 90:2).
iii. He has been our dwelling place in all generations (Ps. 90:1).
c. Because he maintains his own integrity, our actions have consequences.
i. He is a jealous God. That doesn’t mean that he is characterized by frustration, envy and spite. It means that he has a praiseworthy zeal to preserve what is supremely precious to him – the people he loves and his own loyalty to the covenant he has made with them.
ii. His jealousy moves him to action, whether in wrath or mercy.
iii. It matters, then, what we believe, say, and do.
iv. That which misrepresents him is dishonorable and will bring, sooner or later, bitter fruit into human experience.
v. That which genuinely represents his character will, in the long run, bring the rewards of peace and dignity into human life.
d. What they are may not be immediately apparent.
i. It may take three or four generations for his providential rule to become obvious, but it will be.
ii. Out of grace, he may intervene to delay the consequences for a while and to allow a family to continue (cf. 2 Kings 10:30; 15:12).
iii. Or, he may exercise the passive judgement of simply allowing people to follow the course they have chosen until it brings them to the natural conclusion (as in Romans 1:18f). Either way, his sovereignty will be vindicated.
e. God will live up to the terms of his covenant.
i. His mercy will transcend his wrath, but relationship with him cannot exist without both being real.
ii. He will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate” him.
(1) This doesn’t mean that God holds children accountable for the guilt of their fathers – unless they commit the same sins.
(2) His rule is “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:4).
(3) But it does mean that God may allow the consequences of choices to be felt in succeeding generations.
iii. Sometimes this has happened in the positive sense, too, but God always will extend his steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love him and keep his commandments.
3. A Comfort From Applying the Truth to Ourselves
a. There is a truth here regarding wisdom to which we should pay careful attention.
i. It is that none of us ever live long enough to discover on our own experience how life really works.
ii. If it takes three or four generations to recognize the wrong, or a thousand to appreciate the right, by the time we could prove it on our own it would be too late for that truth to fashion our destiny.
iii. We’re going to have to learn from the generations that preceded us! We’re going to have to submit to the wisdom of the ages!
iv. The principle of the third or fourth generation is illustrated by a frank interview historian Will Durant once gave the Chicago Sun Times. He said, “I survive morally because I retain the moral code that was taught me along with the religion, while I have discarded the religion....You and I are living on a shadow...because we are operating on the Christian ethical code which was given us, unfused with the Christian faith....But what will happen to our children...? We are not giving them an ethics warmed up with a religious faith. They are living on the shadow of a shadow.” I wonder where, in another generation, this will take us?
b. A sense of purpose which we need comes from this theme.
i. The jealousy of God must be translated into zealousness for him in our life: he wants love and loyalty from those he has loved and been loyal to.
ii. Revelation 3:15, 19
iii. J.C. Ryle wrote, “Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, to advance His glory in the world in every possible way....A zealous man...is preeminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say that he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, whole-hearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives, or whether he dies – whether he has health, or whether he has sickness – whether he is rich, or whether he is poor – whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offence – whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish – whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise – whether he het honour, or whether he gets shame – for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing; and that one thing is to please God, and to advance God’s glory. If he is consumed in the very burning, he cares not for it – he is content....” (Quoted by Packer, Knowing God, p. 156-157)
iv. That is the only fitting response to who God is and what he has done for us!
c. The confidence that allows us to live well comes from the truth we have been considering.
i. I found places where their confidence in God’s visiting the third and fourth generation led his people to cast themselves upon his mercy, or to make intercession for others, or to leave their enemies to him.
ii. Psalm 103:17 – “But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.”
iii. Annie Johnson Flint wrote:
“Yea, ‘new every morning,’ though we may awake,
Our hearts with old sorrow beginning to ache;
With old work unfinished when night stayed our hand,
With new duties waiting, unknown and unplanned;
With old care still pressing, to fret and to vex,
With new problems rising, our minds to perplex
In ways long familiar, in paths yet untrod,
Oh, new every morning the mercies of God!
His faithfulness fails not; it meets each new day
New guidance for every new step of the way;
New grace for new trials, new trust for old fears,
New patience for bearing the wrongs of the years,
New strength for new burdens, new courage for old,
New faith for whatever the day may unfold;
As fresh for each need as the dew on the sod;
Oh, new every morning the mercies of God!”
1. The word for ‘steadfast love’ in all the passages we’ve been studying means “unfailing love grounded in a covenant.”
a. It accurately describes God’s attitude toward his people – “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he love us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9, 10)
b. And, it fairly sums up the response he desires from those whom he has redeemed – “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
2. When he saw what we’ve been thinking about, Moses bowed to the earth and worshiped, praying, “Please let the Lord go in the midst of us...pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance” (Ex. 34:9).
a. That’s the kind of mind-set with which we should start this new year!
b. Each one of us can be in a covenant relationship with God. He will be merciful toward our iniquities. He will remember our sins no more. He will write his laws on our hearts. He will be our God, and we will be his people! (cf. Heb. 8:10-12)