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A Most Humbling Divine Attribute: God's Long-Suffering

By George Zemek | 08.15.17 | The Expositors Blog

    In an age increasingly characterized by quests for faster everything, are we also caught up in this culture? God isn’t, nor has He ever been! 

    His patient waiting in connection with frenetic and impulsive sinners is mind-blowing. Compressed evidences of this conceptual reality are packaged historically, one after the other, for example, in the prophecies of Hosea.

    Indeed, there are many ways that the amazing long-suffering of our Lord is revealed in Scripture. However, it is especially enlightening to explore two primary vehicles that specifically express His unprecedented forbearance. One comes via a graphic, idiomatic picture from the Old Testament, and the other is conveyed by a compounded term found in the New Testament. These two vehicles have much in common theologically. 

    Consider first the Hebrew idiom that tightly links two different Semitic roots together: ᾽rk and ᾽np. The verbals of ᾽ārak share the common force of “being long,” the noun form ᾽ōrek of “length,” and the adjective ᾽ārēk, “long.” The overwhelming majority of the adjectival employments of this idiom apply to time. The common contextual denominator is reference to a long time before whatever.

    In the idiom under consideration, that “whatever” is a noun derived from the verb ᾽ānap, “to be angry” (i.e., ᾽ap [᾽apayim, dual form]), variously nuanced by context as “nostril,” “nose,” “face,” or “anger.” The Semitic background of flared nostrils and a flushed, red nose and/or face depicted anger. So when linked to God with the “to be long” word family, the combo emphasizes our Lord’s amazing, even shocking, forbearance. He does not react in a knee-jerk fashion; He is not quick-triggered; He does not fly off the handle. But He is slow to exercise His righteous anger. 

    Now with this background in mind ponder the following selected occurrences of this powerful idiom (italicized): 

    Exodus 34:6, NASB

    Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 

    Numbers 14:18, NASB 

    ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’

    Nehemiah 9:17, NASB

    They refused to listen, and did not remember Your wondrous deeds which you had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them. 

    Psalm 86:15, NASB

    But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth.

    Psalm 103:8, NASB

    The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. 

    Psalm 145:8, NASB

    The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. 

    Jeremiah 15:15, ESV

    O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. 

    Joel 2:13, NASB

    And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.

    Jonah 4:2, NASB 

    He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. 

    Nahum 1:3, NASB

    The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way, and clouds are the dust beneath His feet.

    Just a humbling note before we move on. No matter how utterly and exclusively God-like (cf. Hos 11:9b) this attribute appears to be, it is to be becoming a communicable characteristic of His children (cf. Prov 14:29; 15:18; 16:32)!

    Now for the New Testament counterpart, the compounded form of makrothumeō (verb), makrothumia (noun), makrothumos (adjective), and makrothumōs (adverb). As in the case of the Hebrew idiom, it is best to focus first on the second constituent of this Greek family of terms. The verb thumοō in active voice conveys “to make angry,” and in the passive voice “to become angry.” The noun thumοs sometimes indicates “passion” in general, but most often “anger,” “wrath,” or “rage” in particular. Standing in the background is a more literal picture of igniting, burning, boiling, etc. 

    So when makro is prefixed to the thu root it adds the dimension of length of time. Therefore this New Testament word group, especially in its adjectival occurrences, replicates the Old Testament idiom of waiting a long time before igniting and burning with anger. As a matter of fact, the Greek adjective makrothumos is used to render that Hebrew idiom in the Septuagint in Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, et al.

    Now consider this divine attribute of forbearance (i.e., patience with people who are all sinners) in these sample verses (italicized): 

    Romans 2:4, KJV

    Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

    Romans 9:22, KJV 

    What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:

    1 Timothy 1:16, KJV

    Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. 

    2 Peter 3:14–15, KJV

    Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; 

    Most modern versions render those occurrences as “patience” which is fine, but there are other Greek synonyms which more appropriately convey that more general concept. Although somewhat archaic, the KJV does emphasize the more specific idea of forbearance, and it perpetuates a seminal connection to the Hebrew idiom found in the Old Testament.

    And, once again, this divine attribute, as expressed through this counterpart term in the New Testament, is not only humbling but also haunting since it too is used in settings of Christian accountability. We are commanded and expected to be long-suffering toward others.

    It is highly significant that the first manifested attribute of a Christian’s agapē love is to be patient with all people (i.e., to be forbearing, long-suffering). The priority of this obligatory response, or should we say, non-response, echoes throughout the New Testament (cf. Gal 5:22; Col 3:12; 1 Thess 5:14; 2 Tim 3:10; Heb 6:12; Jas 5:10, etc.). Ephesians 4:2 in its context is especially convicting: 

    Therefore, I, the bound one in the Lord, exhort you to live your lives in a manner worthy of the effectual calling with which you have been called, with all humility of mind and meekness, with all long-suffering [or forbearance], always putting up with one another in love, continually making every effort to keep on guarding the oneness of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1–3, author’s interpretive paraphrase).

    Indeed, our Lord can never be biblically characterized as being short-wicked or quick-tempered, but He is the Example, par excellence, of forbearance. That is an incontestable fact of Theology Proper. Notwithstanding, no matter how transcendently “other” that truth is perceived to be from our vantage point, He expects His beloved children to emulate His merciful long-suffering (cf. Eph 5:1)!

    Dr. Zemek serves as the Academic Dean of The Expositors Seminary and as an elder at Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL.

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