What Can We Learn in the Old Testament About the Character of God?
The Character of God
When we search the Old Testament Scriptures we find that God made himself known to his people over long millenia in a gradual process of revelation. Through this process we have learned that our God is different from other gods: In Deuteronomy (5.26) we learn that he is "the living God". He is alive and is a Person who possesses a character. This is diametrically different from the idols made by human hands that some peoples and nations worship.
For us humans, the word 'character' usually means the sum of our qualities, especially our moral qualities that distinguish one individual person from another. From this we deduce that the 'character of God' refers to his characteristics or attributes.
The attributes of our great God differ from those of humankind whom he created. We humans are finite beings and, as no doubt we are aware, we are subject to limitations. God is infinite and his attributes are absolute and express his Unity and essential Being; in him they are limitless.
A Gradual Revelation
The personal character of God has been progressively revealed to human understanding throughout the Old Testament, at levels that we could comprehend at our particular stage of development in history. God's disclosure of himself continues today as we each strive to grow in our understanding of the greatness and glory of the One we worship.
As we search the Scriptures and look more deeply, we may be surprised to find that God's attributes are clearly revealed quite frequently, chiefly through actions and events that occurred in history. These can be found mostly in the lives of the people of Israel, through the poetry of the Psalms, the writings of the prophets and through his Names, which tell us more about him.
A number of theological writers have classified the attributes of God in a diversity of ways, all of which, even when we look at them together, seem inadequate when we are confronted with his great majesty. However, some researchers have devised a system that consists of two divisions and this appears to be the easiest way for us to begin to understand him. In this system the characteristics of God are referred to as 'incommunicable' or 'natural', and 'communicable, or 'moral' attributes.
The 'Natural' Attributes of God
The 'incommunicable' or 'natural' characteristics of God that we find in the Old Testament Scriptures are Divine; they are his alone, and we can find no corresponding attributes in any human characteristics. To reveal them to humankind, in terms that we can grasp, God reveals himself as personal and alive.
- God is Omnipotent, All-powerful. As we can see, starting at the very beginning in Genesis 1:1, he is named as Jehovah-Elohim, the All-Powerful One, the Creator of the heavens and the earth; his Omnipotence means that his power is creative.
- He is Omniscient, All-knowing. Unlike his people, who must constantly increase their knowledge and understanding by thinking, reasoning and learning, God's knowledge is complete and absolute. As David sang (Psalm 139:3) "(You) are acquainted with all my ways." and, indeed further in the Psalm (verse 6): "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high, that I cannot attain to it."
- He is Omnipresent, and this is expressed in the fact that he is in all things. he is everywhere, and so cannot be avoided or escaped from by human beings, as David cried out in Psalm 139:7, 'where can I flee from your presence?" While through Jeremiah (23:24) God warns: 'Who can hide in secret places so I cannot see them?"
- He is Eternal; God is not limited by time. He is "the Everlasting God", El-Olam (Genesis 21:33).
God never changes; his attributes remain completely constant.
All of these 'incommunicable' or 'natural' attributes emphasise God's transcend-ence, or self-existence. God exists independently, he is Jehovah, the great "I AM" (Exodus 3:14), the Covenant God of the Hebrew prophets all through history. The importance attached to the name Jehovah, or Yahweh (in Hebrew it is YHWH as it is considered too holy a name to be mentioned in full), is expressed throughout the Old Testament in such passages as Exodus 34:6-7, ending with: "The Lord, a God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgressions", and Deuteronomy 28:58: "fearing this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God."
This special significance of the 'natural' characteristics of God is also clearly seen in the religious poetry of the Psalms and in the fervid utterances of the prophets.
As the Psalmist proclaims: "The Lord is King forever and ever" (Psalm 10:16).
The' Moral' Attributes of God
The 'Moral' attributes of God are those that can be communicated more readily to humankind. They present in Old Testament Scripture the character of a living and personal God including goodness, holiness, righteousness, justice and love.
- Goodness: The Goodness of God is frequently extolled throughout scripture, as we can read in 2 Chronicles 7:10: "(Solomon) sent the people away to their homes, joyful and in good spirits because of the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to his people Israel", and in the Psalms (34.8): "O taste and see that the Lord is good."
- Holiness: God is all Holiness; he is called "The Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 1:4) and speaks in Leviticus (19:2): "...I the Lord your God am holy", and again in Hosea (11:9): "I am God and no mortal; the Holy One in your midst." The Book of Psalms reminds us that even God's name is holy (99:3): "Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!"
- Righteousness: One of the names of God refers to hIs righteousness, Jehovah-Tsidkenu: "O Lord God of Israel, you are righteous" (Ezra 9.15), and our understanding of this quality is extended in Psalm 11.7: "For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds", and further in "He loves righteousness and justice" (Ps.33.5), leading us to the moral attribute of justice.
- Justice: Beginning right in Genesis we learn (18.25): "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" Psalms goes further (103.6): "The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed." Mankind is sinful, but God's judgement and punishment is tempered with mercy, "If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men... But my mercy shall not depart away from him" (2 Sam. 7:14,15). Within God's family his judgment is remedial, and when we are penitent, he is forgiving, he is God "Who forgives all your iniquities" (Ps. 103.3) This leads us to the following attribute, which tempers God's Justice with his Mercy:
- Love: God is absolute love, and "In his love and in his pity he redeemed them" (us, his people) (Is. 63.9), while in verse 7 Isaiah speaks of "the great goodness" and "the multitude of his loving kindnesses." In Deuteronomy (33.3) we read: "Yes, he loves his people", while in Psalm 33.5 we learn that he is a loving God: "the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord."
We are blessed that we can embrace these 'moral attributes' or qualities of God and thank and praise him for them as we grow in our relationship with him.
Our Knowledge of God is Ongoing
Theologians help to make the scriptures clear for us and there is much that we can learn through them about our Almighty King and Heavenly Father. However, it is important that we should take care that our knowledge of God does not remain static and is not confined or limited. Throughout our lives our relationship with our awesome God and our faith in Him should continue to grow and mature.
Remember! Man is a finite being while God's personal natural attributes and moral attributes are infinite - and far more complete and perfect than we can ever imagine. Praise Him that it is so!
© 2020 Bronwen Scott-Branagan