The Most Repeated Verse in the Bible
Posted by Sam Allberry on October 9, 2018
Symmetry can be wonderful. Think of the intricacy of a snowflake, or the geometry of certain iconic buildings like the U.S. Capitol or London’s Buckingham Palace, or the rotational symmetry of a pine cone. If any of these were distorted and the symmetry lost, the aesthetic appeal would immediately go as well.
Several years ago, the corporate sponsorship of the London Eye transferred to a new company, which then painted one of the giant wheel’s capsules in the distinctive red of their branding. There was an outcry: all of a sudden, the wheel had lost its symmetry. It just didn’t look the same.
But there are times when asymmetry is beautiful too. Human faces are not symmetrical, and while that may seem like an imperfection, it is not. If you were able to make one half of your face the mirror image of the other, it would look symmetrical, but it wouldn’t look right. It would look neat, but in a way that shows you faces are not meant to look neat. They are too personal. Symmetry doesn’t work. The asymmetry of your face is one of the things that makes it so wonderfully and distinctively you.
There is a certain asymmetry to God too. And just like ours, there is a distinctive beauty to it.
For many years, I assumed that God’s love and his wrath were equal and parallel outworkings of who he is. After all, God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is light (1 John 1:5), and so I presumed each was the source of either God’s salvation or judgment. I could even draw a chart that lined God’s love and wrath alongside each other, with biblical examples and verses for each. It looked neat and tidy, which is how I instinctively like my theology to be.
But while both God’s love and wrath are undeniable and necessary features of his dealings with us, they are not symmetrical. They do not spring from the same central part of God’s being with equal force. The two are not parallel components of God’s work.
In the book of Lamentations, we are given an exquisite and agonizing reflection on the judgment of God in decimating the Old Testament nation of Israel. The book is deeply raw and yet meticulously structured, taking the form of long acrostics.
At its center, in the middle of the middle chapter, we find words of affirmation and hope. Hope thus becomes the crux of the whole book, though not the final note of it — the final passages return to further expressions of lament. What Lamentations, therefore, gives us is not a progression away from lament and into hope, but instead hope in the (literal) midst of lament — or, as the New Testament puts it, rejoicing in our sufferings (Romans 5:3).
Merciful and Gracious
What is this hope? The hope is that this judgment will not have the last word for God’s people:
The Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Lamentations 3:31–32)
What is this hope founded on? The asymmetry of God:
For he does not afflict from his heart, or grieve the children of men. (Lamentations 3:33)
The writer continues to be unflinching in acknowledging the pain of judgment. God is casting off; God is causing grief; God is afflicting. This the writer does not doubt.
But while such judgment is undeniable, it is not what lies deepest in God’s purposes for his people. God’s judgment will not be forever (Lamentations 3:31); he will yet have compassion (Lamentations 3:32). And, most fundamentally, it is not what God is about (Lamentations 3:33). It is not “from his heart.” God is doing it. He means to do it. But it is not where his heart ultimately lies.
What is central to God instead is his compassion and faithfulness. His judgment is real, but it is not foundational. His love and anger are not symmetrical, as God’s own words about himself show so clearly, words so foundational they resound and echo throughout the rest of the Old Testament:
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6)
This is the banner hanging over everything else God shows us about himself. We see it reiterated time and again throughout the whole Old Testament. It is the most repeated verse in all the Bible. Many things are true about God. All of them are glorious. Yet not all of them are fundamental. But this is.
God’s Pinned Tweet
God is slow to anger. He is not touchy and explosive. He is not trigger-happy. As Ray Ortlund has put it, God “is not itching to bring down the hammer. We have to drive him to that.” Instead, “His spontaneous heart is to love us.”
God is not slow to love; he’s slow to anger. It is his love that has the engine running — always ready to go at a moment’s notice. In contrast, his anger has to be worked up within him. The two do not occupy the same place in his affections. Love abounds where anger doesn’t. It is love he possesses in boundless measure, not anger.
This is God’s pinned tweet. Everything else needs to be read in the light of this. It forms the context and framework for everything else God will reveal to us about himself. This faithful, steadfast, covenant love is what we find at the deepest core of God’s being. Nothing better expresses the heart of who he is.
God’s anger is real, but it is not central. Love and wrath are not perfectly balanced on some divine fulcrum: God leans heavily and unmistakably on one more than the other. It is his love that comes from the heart, and therein lies wonderful news and great comfort for his people.
This article first appeared on Desiring God on October 3, 2018.