[Moses] said, “Please, show me Your glory.” Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:18, 19).
I once viewed this scripture in the restrictive sense, as if God were limiting His grace and compassion. In other words, only a few people are afforded His grace, but not all.
But the intent of the verse is exactly the opposite. The Lord was explaining His goodness and His mercy to Moses — saying, in effect, that His grace and compassion were beyond Moses’ understanding.
The golden calf incident precipitated this conversation. Israel had broken her covenant with Almighty God by worshipping the calf. In Exodus 32:30, Moses told the people their sin was so great, he was not sure God would be willing to forgive them. You see, it was Moses who was doubting the limits of God’s mercy. And he was causing the people of Israel to doubt as well.
God and Moses spoke face-to-face on Israel’s behalf for the whole of Exodus 33. In that context God said, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God wanted Moses to know that His mercy knows no bounds. His ways are higher than our ways; His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:6-9). While human mercy is limited, God’s mercy is not (Hosea 6:1-6; Matthew 9:9-13). It is greater than we could ask or even imagine. Praise God!
The Jewish disciples of Jesus had trouble imagining that God’s mercy extended to the unbelieving Gentiles. You can read the raucous dispute about it in Acts 11. Peter explained in detail how God gave the Gentiles the same gift He had given them. Then he said, “Who was I that I could withstand God?” (v. 17).
They were stunned into silence. In the disciples’ minds, there were limits to God’s mercy. But God will be gracious to whom He will be gracious, and He will show compassion to whom He will show compassion. And aren’t you glad He does?
Time and again, God’s goodness and mercy flow beyond the boundaries we put on them. Are there people in your life that you just cannot forgive? God’s mercy is already there! That is our gracious and merciful God!
“For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32).