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Exodus 33:19 in its Old Testament Context

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 6 August 2009

in Reviews

This is the fourth part of a fairly extensive review of John Piper’s The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23.

<em>The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23</em> by John Piper

The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23 by John Piper

In this chapter, Piper attempts to venture back to the book of Exodus which Paul quotes in Romans 9:15: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The goal for Piper is to show that even in its original context (whether or not Paul might have tampered with that context is another issue entirely) this is a general principle rather than a particular event. By this, I mean to say that the notion of God having mercy/compassion on whom he will have mercy/compassion is not just relevant to Moses at that moment, but is an attribute of God that we can all take to the bank for all time.

To this end, Piper does his usual excellent job of exegesis. Even though the chapter is fairly short (“tight” might be a better word), he attends to the broader context by looking at chapters 32–34 and then narrows that down until he hones in on the key verse (Exodus 33:19). There is enough grammatical stuff here to keep language nerds like myself happy, though I think that Piper might rely a bit too heavily on articles from Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (aka TDNT).

The crux of Piper’s argument has to do with this episode in which God “passes by” Moses and reveals his glory. This revelation of glory, for Piper, is wrapped up in the verbal proclamations that God makes beforehand (33:19) as well as the rather odd saying that he blurts out as he “passes by” (34:6,7).

While I tend to agree with Piper’s general idea, that mercy and compassion are God’s prerogative, I do think he places an inordinate amount of stress on this “verbal” passing by to the detriment of the physical action that occurred. I find it very interesting that in 33:21–23 God sets up the encounter and goes as far as to tell Moses that his glory is too much and therefore he will have to cover Moses’ face with his hand, but then he’ll remove his hand so that Moses can see his back. This is a very physical moment!

Perhaps Piper and I could quibble all day, it wouldn’t really matter as I don’t think it’s that important to his argument. The important notion is that this idea of mercy and compassion and God’s ability to dole that out as he pleases is wrapped up in the very name of God — it is, for all intents and purposes, who he is. I don’t think that I can mount much of a challenge to Dr. Piper on this front as I read the text in the same way.

The only other issue that I have is Piper’s use of the word “sovereign” throughout this chapter. I think it is a rather sly ploy on his part as he slips this theological timebomb of a word into his prose without defining it or calling attention to it. “Sovereign” is a theologically heavy word and requires some attention. What exactly does Piper mean when he uses it in this particular chapter? I think I know, but I’d rather he make his purposes plain.

Article Series - The Justification of God

  1. Introduction
  2. My Kinsmen are Accursed!
  3. The Purpose that Accords with Election: Romans 9:6–13
  4. Exodus 33:19 in its Old Testament Context

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