01 May, 2017

The Longsuffering of God: A Survey of God’s Longsuffering throughout Scripture

Rev. Angus Stewart

(Originally published in the Covenant Reformed News [volume XVI, issues 3-10])


1. God’s Longsuffering in the Old Testament Historical Books
2. God’s Longsuffering in the Psalms and Prophets
3. God’s Longsuffering in the New Testament
4. God’s Longsuffering—Particular and in Himself
5. God’s Longsuffering and the History of Sin
6. God’s Longsuffering and the Reprobate Ungodly
7. God’s Longsuffering and the Sins of His Elect
8. God’s Longsuffering and Our Suffering

1. God’s Longsuffering in the Old Testament Historical Books

The very first use of the word “longsuffering” in Holy Scripture is found in the book of Exodus and on Mount Sinai. In this first biblical reference to longsuffering, God speaks of His own (not man’s) longsuffering:

And the Lord passed by before him [i.e., Moses], and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Ex. 34:6-7).

The divine perfections that are listed along with longsuffering are “positive” (e.g., mercy, grace and goodness) and exercised for the salvation of God’s elect (“keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin”). The Lord then goes on to speak of His “negative” work towards the reprobate: “and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (7).

This profound, divine self-revelation occurred against the dark backdrop of Israel’s terrible sin of worshipping the golden calf, contrary to the second commandment. It also came in answer to the prayer of Moses, the Old Testament mediator: “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory” (33:18). Clearly, God’s “glory” includes His longsuffering!

Jehovah’s immediate response to Moses’ intercession reveals additional and important truths about His longsuffering: “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy” (19). First, God’s longsuffering is a revelation of His “name.” Second, God’s longsuffering is a manifestation of His “goodness.” Third, God is absolutely sovereign in His longsuffering for, since He “will be gracious to whom [He] will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom [He] will shew mercy,” He will be longsuffering to whom He will be longsuffering.

After the Lord’s beautiful self-revelation (34:6-7), Moses’ response is twofold. First, he worships: “Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped” (8). Our adoration too should be prompted by God’s longsuffering with us!

Second, Moses prays: “If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance” (9). Organically and with respect to the elect in Israel, Jehovah, in answer to this petition, forgives His people and journeys with His inheritance towards the promised land.

The second biblical reference to longsuffering is also found in the Pentateuch. This time, it is Moses (not God) who speaks of Jehovah’s longsuffering. He appeals to this divine virtue in a prayer, after Israel’s wicked refusal to enter into the land of Canaan (Num. 13:1-14:10).

This is the part of Moses’ intercession (13-19) that is of special interest for our present subject:

And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying, The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation (17-18).

Notice here two tie-ins with God’s self-revelation at Mount Sinai. First, Moses at Kadesh-barnea mentions similar divine attributes and works, and in the same order as in Exodus 34:6-7: “positive” and then “negative.” Second, Moses explicitly appeals to God’s words uttered at the holy mount: “as thou hast spoken, saying” (Num. 14:17). But notice which of Jehovah’s virtues is mentioned first here: “The Lord is longsuffering” (18).

Next follows the conclusion and central request of Moses’ prayer: “Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now” (19). This is swiftly followed by God’s gracious answer: “I have pardoned according to thy word” (20).

The third and final reference to Jehovah’s longsuffering in the Old Testament historical books is found in Nehemiah 9. This chapter contains the godly Levites’ review of Israel’s history, all the way from Abraham till after the return from the Babylonian captivity, with special reference to both Jehovah’s mercy and Israel’s sinfulness.

Nehemiah 9:17 reads,

And [they] refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks, and in their rebellion appointed a captain to return to their bondage: but thou art a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger [i.e., longsuffering], and of great kindness, and forsookest them not.

Unlike the two earlier historical references to Jehovah’s longsuffering, this text only speaks of God’s “positive” attributes and operations (“a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and forsookest them not”) and not His “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.”

Nehemiah 9 mentions the historical events that occasioned both of the earlier references to Jehovah’s longsuffering. God’s longsuffering at the end of Nehemiah 9:17 is sandwiched between Israel’s refusal to enter into the promised land (Num. 13-14) in the middle of verse 17 and the idolatry of the golden calf (Ex. 32-34) in verse 18. Here we see the glorious unity of Scripture, with the last text on God’s longsuffering in the Old Testament historical books alluding to the previous two!

2. God’s Longsuffering in the Psalms and Prophets

In the last issue of the News, we considered God’s longsuffering (or His being slow to anger) in the Old Testament historical books: Exodus 34:6-7, Numbers 14:17-18 and Nehemiah 9:17.
We turn now to three references in the Psalms: “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth” (86:15); “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (103:8); “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy” (145:8).

These three texts have at least four things in common. First, they were all inspired by the Holy Spirit and penned by David, according to their headings, as the fruit of his meditation upon God’s law, especially Exodus 34:6-7 and Numbers 14:17-18. Second, only God’s “positive” attributes are mentioned in all three verses: His compassion, grace, mercy and truth are spoken of in connection with His longsuffering. Third, all three are references to Jehovah’s longsuffering to His beloved people (including us). Fourth, all three references to God’s longsuffering in the Psalms are found in songs of praise. There is a lesson here for us too!

Moving to the twelve minor prophets, we come first to Joel 2:13:

And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

Again, we notice, first, that only God’s “positive” perfections are here mentioned: His grace, mercy and kindness are spoken of in connection with His longsuffering or being slow to anger. Second, like the three passages from the Old Testament historical books (Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:17-18; Neh. 9:17) and the three verses from the Psalms quoted in the second paragraph, Joel 2:13 is addressed to God’s people, Israel. Third, this text is a call to repentance in which the prophet appeals to part of God’s earlier self-revelation to strengthen his exhortation. For us too, God’s longsuffering, both in Himself and to us, is an encouragement to confess our sins from our hearts.

The next minor prophet to refer to God’s longsuffering is Jonah:

And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil (4:2).

A pattern is emerging! First, along with God’s longsuffering or being slow to anger, we read here of His grace, mercy and kindness. Again, they are all “positive” divine attributes. Second, the prophet is referring to God’s people, this time (elect) Gentiles. Third, Jonah knew God’s self-revelation at Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:6-7) and Kadesh-barnea (Num. 14:17-18), and so understood that, since Jehovah had sent him to preach to Nineveh, God had His people there to whom He would show Himself longsuffering, gracious, merciful and kind.

This is the reason why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh in the first place. He did not want to see the wicked Assyrians—Israel’s enemies—saved. Especially was this the case because Jonah knew, given the wickedness of the Northern Kingdom, that God, in turning to the Gentiles, would turn away from the Jewish people whom the prophet loved.

Our third and final passage in the minor prophets is from the vision of Nahum:

The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet (1:3).

Like the two verses from the Pentateuch (Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:17-18), Nahum first mentions God’s “positive” perfection in saving His people (“The Lord is slow to anger”) and then His “negative” attributes (“The Lord is ... great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked”) in His mighty punishment of the impenitent wicked, as the One who “hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm.”

Though Nahum 1 mostly concerns the judgment of the Most High upon Assyria, verse 3a (“The Lord is slow to anger”) is not the only bright note for His elect people in the chapter. We read that “The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him” (7).
We hear the gospel in Nahum 1: “Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace! O Judah, keep thy solemn feasts, perform thy vows: for the wicked shall no more pass through thee; he is utterly cut off” (15).

Moving from the above three passages in the twelve minor prophets, we come finally to the only reference to God’s longsuffering in the four major prophets, Jeremiah 15:15:

O Lord, thou knowest: remember me, and visit me, and revenge me of my persecutors; take me not away in thy longsuffering: know that for thy sake I have suffered rebuke.

Here only one divine attribute is mentioned: God’s longsuffering. In this text, it is not towards Israel as a nation, for the elect’s sake. Instead of being exercised towards a corporate body, God is longsuffering to an individual believer: Jeremiah himself. The prophet’s prayer is this: “Do not, O Lord, in Thy longsuffering over me, allow my persecutors to destroy me.” God is not longsuffering towards the wicked who afflict Jeremiah for he asks the Lord, “revenge me of my persecutors.”

3. God’s Longsuffering in the New Testament

In the last two issues of the News, we looked at God’s longsuffering in the Old Testament. Now we turn to the seven New Testament instances.

The first reference to God’s longsuffering in the New Testament is Luke 18:7: “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?” The object of Jehovah’s bearing or suffering long in this text is “his own elect,” those whom He chose in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).

The last biblical references to the longsuffering of the Most High are found in Peter’s two canonical epistles. In I Peter 3:20, we read that “the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” Here Jehovah’s longsuffering is directed not to the wicked world He destroyed by the flood but to the “eight souls” (Noah and his three sons with their four wives) who were “saved” by water, as a picture of their eternal salvation.

The apostle Peter next speaks of God’s longsuffering in II Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

Here we are told that God’s “longsuffering [is] to us-ward,” namely, the “beloved” (1), those who “have obtained like precious faith” with Peter and all the saints (1:1), and who are the objects of Jehovah’s “calling and election” (10), as opposed to the “scoffers” (3:3).

Those to whom the Almighty is longsuffering are the ones whom He wills, wishes, wants and desires not to “perish” but to “come to repentance” (9). The sovereign and unchangeable Lord, in His infinite wisdom, power and grace, effectually calls all of His own, for “who hath resisted his will?” (Rom. 9:19). Notice that II Peter 3 explains why Christ has not yet returned. It is not that the Lord is “slack concerning His promise” (9), as the scoffers claimed, but that all of God’s elect church, all the stones in Jehovah’s spiritual temple, all the members of the body of Christ, must be brought to salvation before He comes back to judge the world.

This fits perfectly with Peter’s third and final reference to the Lord’s longsuffering:

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 (15).

Notice three things in this text. First, the apostle asserts that “the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation,” for those to whom the sovereign and omnipotent God is longsuffering are always saved! Second, this is to be a theological first principle with Christians in their thinking regarding Jehovah’s longsuffering: “account [i.e., consider, deem, think or reckon with deliberate and careful judgment] that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation.” Third, the effectual and saving power of God’s longsuffering is also the inspired teaching of the great apostle of grace: “even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you.”

In Romans 9:22, that great theologian asks, “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 …?”

Here we are taught that Jehovah “endured … the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction [i.e., the reprobate].” He puts up with them for a while because He shall display His glory through His holy “wrath” and awesome “power” in His “destruction” of them as “vessels of wrath” for all their sin and rebellion. This is what God desires, wishes and wants: “God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known.” Reprobation (22) serves God’s election of both Jews and Gentiles, whereby he “make[s] known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (23).

We need carefully to distinguish between God’s enduring or putting up with the reprobate (cf. Matt. 17:17; Mark 9:19; Luke 9:41) and His being longsuffering towards His elect (Luke 18:7). The Almighty “endured ... the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction [i.e., the reprobate]” (Rom. 9:22). How did He do this? The answer is found in the subordinate clause: “with much longsuffering” towards His elect (22). Remember that “the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation” (II Pet. 3:15).

This is Paul’s other reference to God’s longsuffering in Romans:

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (2:4).

This does not refer to a “goodness” or “longsuffering” of God for the reprobate. First, the text does not say that Jehovah’s goodness or longsuffering merely tries (but fails) to lead the reprobate to repentance; it says that “the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” Second, the verse speaks not of merely a bit of common grace for the reprobate, as some allege, but of “the riches of his goodness.”

Romans 2:4 is not addressed to man as elect or reprobate but to generic and undifferentiated man. Thus he is addressed in the context as “O man” (1, 3). If we come to differentiation, God’s “forbearance” is for the reprobate, as in Romans 9:22; His longsuffering is for the elect (Luke 18:7) and is always salvific (II Pet. 3:15).

The very same apostle Paul is the great biblical example of Jehovah’s longsuffering to an elect sinner:

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 (I Tim. 1:16).

Paul says that God was longsuffering to him “first,” not chronologically but preeminently, since he viewed himself as the “chief” of sinners (15) for he blasphemed Christ and persecuted His church (13). No wonder the apostle speaks of the Lord Jesus manifesting “all longsuffering” towards him, before breaking forth with a doxology: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (17).

In God’s longsuffering to him in his gross wickedness before his conversion, Paul says he is a “pattern” (16). No one is too sinful to be saved, if God wills it. If the Lord can convert Paul who ravaged Christ’s church (Acts 8:1-4), then nobody is too difficult for Him. All must repent of their sins and trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, the only Saviour!

4. God’s Longsuffering—Particular and in Himself

In the last three issues of the News, we have surveyed all the biblical references to God’s longsuffering. We have observed from both the Old Testament (the historical books, the Psalms and the prophets) and the New Testament (the gospels and the epistles) that Jehovah’s longsuffering is particular.

First, God’s longsuffering is seen to be particular because it is found amidst references to His grace, mercy and kindness. This is the case in all three passages in the Old Testament historical books. In Exodus 34:6, Jehovah refers to Himself as “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering.” Later Moses declares, “The Lord is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Num. 14:18). Likewise, the Levites confessed that the Most High is “a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger [i.e., longsuffering], and of great kindness” (Neh. 9:17).

Since they are based upon the two passages in the Pentateuch which refer to God’s longsuffering, we are not surprised that all three verses in the Psalms which speak of this divine virtue connect His longsuffering with His compassion, grace and mercy. “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth” (86:15). “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger [i.e., longsuffering], and plenteous in mercy” (103:8). “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger [i.e., longsuffering], and of great mercy” (145:8).

The prophets present the same beautiful and harmonious picture of God’s attributes of goodness, with both concluding with references to His kindness: “And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger [i.e., longsuffering], and of great kindness” (Joel 2:13); “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger [i.e., longsuffering], and of great kindness” (Jonah 4:2).

Second, it is evident that God’s longsuffering is particular because Scripture speaks of its being exercised towards the elect alone. This very point is made in the first Old Testament reference to this divine perfection. The God who is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering” (Ex. 34:6) declares, “[I] will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy” (33:19).

In the first New Testament text on Jehovah’s longsuffering, Jesus stresses this: “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long [i.e., be longsuffering] with them?” (Luke 18:7). Similarly, Peter teaches that “God is longsuffering to us-ward” (II Pet. 3:9), those who are elect and “beloved” (1:10; 3:1). Whereas the Lord “endured ... the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction [i.e., the reprobate],” Paul declares that He has “much longsuffering” upon “the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory [i.e., the elect]” (Rom. 9:22-23).

Third, God’s longsuffering is particular because of the groups to which it is shown, such as the “eight souls [who] were saved by water” in the ark (I Pet. 3:20), spiritual Israel (Joel 2:13), penitent Gentiles (Jonah 4:2), believing Jews and Gentiles throughout the New Testament age (I Tim. 1:16), and godly individuals, such as Jeremiah (Jer. 15:15) and Paul (I Tim. 1:16).

Fourth, we know that God’s longsuffering is particular since it is always salvific or saving: “the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation” (II Pet. 3:15). It is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ (I Tim. 1:15-16), who is the “only Redeemer of God’s elect” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, A. 21).

At this stage, a question arises regarding the nature of God: Is He longsuffering in Himself? The answer is an emphatic Yes!

The reason for this lies, first, in God’s self-sufficiency. He has need of nothing outside Himself for He is perfectly full and rich. Thus the Almighty is self-sufficient in all His attributes, including His longsuffering. Second, Jehovah is unchangeable. Therefore, He cannot become longsuffering through His creation.

So how is God longsuffering in His own Being? First, we need to remove the idea of time from all our thoughts about Jehovah, since He is eternal or timeless, for there is no time in Him. Second, the Almighty never grows tired or bored with Himself because of His own infinite glory, riches and fulness (whereas we, being finite and sinful, can and do become tired of ourselves!).

If you would like a definition, God’s longsuffering is His constant and never-wearying delight in Himself as the perfectly blessed One. We worship the longsuffering Jehovah (I Tim. 1:16) from the heart: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (17)!

God is also longsuffering regarding His Persons. The Triune God is one in His Being and three in His Persons, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He enjoys infinitely blessed covenant fellowship in Himself, between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. This divine Fellowship is absolutely perfect for it is always vibrant, beautiful, deep and satisfying. The fellowship of the three divine Persons never wanes or grows stale (unlike our fellowship with one another in this life, sadly).

Concerning our longsuffering Triune God (16), we again exclaim, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (17)!

5. God’s Longsuffering and the History of Sin

In the last four issues of the News, we surveyed all the references to God’s longsuffering in both the Old and the New Testaments, emphasizing that the exercise of this divine attribute is particular, for the elect alone. But what about how this works out in the history of sin?

Let us start with the beginning of the history of sin: the fall in Genesis 3. Why did the Most High not cast Adam and Eve into hell immediately after their eating the forbidden fruit? Surely, this is what their sin deserved? However, in God’s eternal decree, He had a wonderful plan to glorify His great name through the salvation of an elect church in Jesus Christ. The immediate death and damnation of the first two human beings would have stopped the propagation of mankind! What then of the history of the world? What about the coming of the Messiah?

Moving forward many centuries, we come to the flood. Why did God tell Noah that 120 years would pass before the global deluge (Gen. 6:3)? It was not because the Almighty was longsuffering to the reprobate in that age. Rather, time was needed to build the ark and for Noah to preach about God’s coming judgment (II Pet. 2:5). Also within these twelve decades, other elect saints, like Methuselah, died. They could not perish in the flood because it was a picture of Jehovah’s avenging wrath against the ungodly! The longsuffering of God saved the eight souls in the ark; it was not trying to save the impenitent reprobate who drowned under the judgment of the Most High (I Pet. 3:20).

Why did the Lord not destroy Sodom earlier? It was not that God loves, and is longsuffering towards, everybody head for head. Instead, the Sodomites had to fill up the cup of their iniquity. The development of their wickedness even reached to their attempted, homosexual gang rape of two strangers (Gen. 19:1-11). Until the departure of believing Lot, the only elect person in Sodom, the Almighty could not burn up the city, as Abraham well understood:

That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? (18:25).

After all, the fire and brimstone are a picture of the “eternal fire” of hell (Jude 7; II Pet. 2:6)!

What about the Egyptians in the book of Exodus? Was the Almighty longsuffering towards them? No. Through the words and miracles of Moses, God hardened the hearts of Pharaoh (Ex. 4:21; 7:3, 13; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8), his servants (10:1) and his people (14:17). Jehovah’s hardening of the Egyptians issued from His eternal reprobation and holy hatred of them (Rom. 9:10-24; 11:7-10). Moreover, the Egyptians were destroyed for the sake of His beloved Israel: “For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life” (Isa. 43:3-4).

Why did God not destroy the inhabitants of Canaan earlier? Was this because they were the objects of His longsuffering? No. In the days recorded in Genesis 12-50, there simply were not enough descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to possess the promised land. Besides, the people in Canaan had not yet sufficiently developed in their sin. As Jehovah told Abraham centuries before the conquest of the holy land, “But in the fourth generation they [i.e., Abraham’s descendants] shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Gen. 15:16). Then the Most High would use the sword of Joshua and the nation of Israel to inflict His judgment upon the wicked inhabitants of Canaan (cf. Lev. 18).

After the Jews crucified His Son, why did Jehovah not devastate Jerusalem and its temple sooner? Why did He wait four decades until AD 70? Christ explains that the Jews must commit other sins, especially persecuting His followers, so as to be fully ripe for their inescapable judgment:

Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar (Matt. 23:32-35).

Furthermore, elect Jews in and around Jerusalem needed to be saved first, as we read in the early chapters of Acts (e.g., 2:41; 4:4; 6:1, 7).

Does the sparing of the Gentile world for many hundreds of years before the Holy One of Israel began to gather a catholic or universal church (cf. Acts 14:16; 17:30) prove that He was longsuffering to these reprobate people? Of course not! How could the Triune God save elect Gentiles in the New Testament age, if He had wiped out their ancestors centuries before? The Lord had His elect among the subsequent generations and numerous descendants of ancient idolaters, including the (largely Gentile) readers of the Covenant Reformed News!

Finally, does the “delay” of the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ for the final judgment indicate that God is longsuffering to the reprobate? No. Revelation 6:9-11 records “the fifth seal.” John “saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” This is the loud cry he heard: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” John beheld that “white robes were given unto every one of them.” Then we read of the answer to their earnest cry: “it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.”

In short, the scriptural explanation of the delay of the great judgment day is that more saints must be martyred and the ungodly world must fully manifest its wickedness. Only then will all things be ready for the glorified Christ to return to deliver His beloved people and punish those who rebel against Him. “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32)!

6. God’s Longsuffering and the Reprobate Ungodly

In the last five issues of the Covenant Reformed News, we have been setting forth the Bible’s teaching concerning the divine attribute of longsuffering. Now we shall consider this perfection of God in connection with the impenitent wicked.

We start with the founder and first ruler of the Northern Kingdom, Jeroboam I, whom Scripture repeatedly calls the man who “made Israel to sin” (e.g., I Kings 14:16; 15:26, 30, 34; 16:2, 26; 22:52; II Kings 3:3; 10:29; 13:2, 11; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24, 28). This wicked man rebelled against the house of David and, hence, against Jesus Christ, the sole king and head of the church, whom David typified. Jeroboam forsook Jerusalem (a picture of the true church), its temple (where Almighty God especially dwelt), its altar and sacrifices (which pointed to Christ’s satisfaction for sin) and the Aaronitic priesthood (which God had ordained). Instead, Jeroboam began a new dynasty over the northern tribes and established idolatrous shrines at Dan and Bethel, where non-Levitical priests offered sacrifices to the two golden calves that he had made, in keeping with his new religious calendar (I Kings 12:28-33).

Given the height of Jeroboam’s abominations, why did not the Holy One of Israel cut him off sooner? It was certainly not that there was any divine love for him!

One factor is that God willed the development of the false church in the Northern Kingdom over against the true church in the Southern Kingdom, also called Judah. This served to heighten the antithesis and to provide New Testament Christians with an Old Testament example of the true church and the false church existing side-by-side at the same time (Belgic Confession 29). Another reason is that Jeroboam had to live long enough to have a regenerate son, Abijah, of whom was “found some good thing toward the Lord God of Israel” (I Kings 14:13).

Our second example is King Ahaz, ruler of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (rather than the Northern Kingdom of Israel, established by Jeroboam). You can read about Ahaz’s gross idolatry at God’s temple in Jerusalem in II Kings 16 and II Chronicles 28. Again the question arises, Why did God not slay him earlier? It was not that God was longsuffering towards him and desperately tried to convert him! Rather, Ahaz must be succeeded by the son of his own loins, the pious Hezekiah, who would begin cleansing the pollutions of the temple on the very first day of the first month of the first year of his reign (II Chron. 29:3, 17).

Our third individual is found in the New Testament Scriptures: Jezebel, that wicked woman in the church at Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29). She was a false prophetess, who promoted fornication and idolatry in the church, which she defended by her antinomianism. Her deceitful claim was that, unless one knows “the depths of Satan,” one can never fully appreciate the greatness of God’s rich grace of forgiveness (24)!

Concerning Jezebel, Christ declared, “I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not” (21). Was this because God loved her and was longsuffering to her and her reprobate followers? No! The Lord Jesus promised to “cast her into a bed [of sickness]” (22), adding, “I will kill her children with death,” so that “all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts” (23).

Turning from these three individuals (Jeroboam, Ahaz and the prophetess Jezebel), we will next consider a group of people: the false teachers mentioned in II Peter 2 and Jude. Do either of these holy men speak of those reprobate church leaders (Jude 4) as the recipients of God’s longsuffering or grace? No! Instead, they stress the certainty of their punishment (II Pet. 2:1, 3-6, 9, 12-13, 17; Jude 5-7, 13-15). God will execute His severe judgment upon these false teachers in accordance with His eternal plan! As Moses says, “their foot shall slide in due time” (Deut. 32:35).

Our last biblical example is Judas, whose eternal reprobation is underscored by Scripture (John 6:64, 70-71; 13:18, 21, 26-27; 17:12). Judas was a thief; he had the bag and was pilfering all along (John 12:6; 13:29)! So why did God not cast him into hell even then? First, Judas’ betrayal of Christ was predicted in the Old Testament (Ps. 41:9; 55:12-14, 20-21; 109:6ff.) and so in the providence of God this had to come to pass. Second, God had appointed Judas’ treachery as a crucial part of the way in which the Lord Jesus would go to the cross, where He would die for all the sins of His people.

Christ did not speak of any divine love or longsuffering for Judas that desired his salvation. Instead, the Son of God proclaimed regarding the traitor, “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). This is true of all who die in impenitence. All those in hell wish that they had never existed!

Christ declared this judgment upon Judas (and all who lead others into sin):

It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones (Luke 17:1-2; cf. Matt. 18:6; Mark 9:42).

God does not immediately cut off the reprobate not because He is longsuffering to them but because, in His inscrutable justice, He is giving them more time and opportunity to heap up wrath unto themselves (Rom. 2:5). Jehovah’s purpose with the impenitent ungodly is “to shew his wrath, and to make his power known” (9:22).

Whereas God puts up with or forbears or “endure[s] … the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction,” He does this “with much longsuffering” towards His elect “that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles” (22-24). Reprobation and forbearance serve God’s election and longsuffering towards His beloved people in Jesus Christ!

7. God’s Longsuffering and the Sins of His Elect

Having considered the reprobate ungodly in the last issue of the Covenant Reformed News, we now turn to Scripture’s teaching on the divine attribute of longsuffering with regard to the sins of God’s people in Jesus Christ.

Think of the terrible transgressions of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament! These included their lewd idolatry with the golden calf at Mount Sinai (Ex. 32-34) and their stubborn refusal at Kadesh to enter the promised land (Num. 13-14). We read of God’s being longsuffering or slow to anger at both of these low points, both at the time (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18) and later (Neh. 9:17).

This last verse occurs in a review of Israel’s history that highlights Jehovah’s mighty acts for the salvation of His people despite their terrible sins. Nehemiah 9 begins with the children of Israel coming together for a fast, covered with “sackclothes” and with dust upon their heads (1), confessing “their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers” (2).

Listen to their lament: “our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, And refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them; but hardened their necks” (16-17). Moreover, “they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs, and slew thy prophets which testified against them to turn them to thee, and they wrought great provocations” (26). Repeatedly, “they did evil again before thee ... they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments, but sinned against thy judgments … and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear” (28, 29).

Thus the Levites declare on behalf of Israel, “we have done wickedly: Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers, kept thy law, nor hearkened unto thy commandments and thy testimonies, wherewith thou didst testify against them. For they have not served thee in their kingdom” (33-35). Yet there was hope because God was longsuffering or “slow to anger” (17)!

No wonder that holy David, who meditated in God’s law day and night, celebrated this divine virtue (Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8) in connection with the forgiveness of sins (Ps. 86:5; 103: 3, 10, 12).

God also magnified His longsuffering in His salvation of elect Gentiles, including the Ninevites (Jonah 4:2) and the New Testament church (II Pet. 3:9, 15), most of which is not ethnically Jewish (Rom. 9:22-24). What a multitude of sins of former pagans are covered in the blood of Jesus Christ in the longsuffering of God!

Jehovah is “longsuffering” to predestinated individuals, including Paul, the “chief” of sinners, who persecuted the church before God showed His rich “grace” to him (I Tim. 1:13-16).

All of this speaks to us, beloved! How longsuffering has God been to us regarding our original sins! What about all of the sins of our youth (Ps. 25:7)? Many of us can recall our horrible iniquities before we came to Christ. There are also our sins as Christians, some of which seem to us to be even worse than our pre-conversion sins because they were committed against far greater light. We have transgressed God’s holy law as His children, as church members, as earthly sons or daughters, as husbands or wives, as fathers or mothers, at home and at work, in our thoughts and words and deeds!
But our covenant God comes to us in Scripture, reminding us of His longsuffering! Through the preaching of the holy gospel, He declares to us that He is longsuffering, as the One who is patient, gracious and slow to anger. Jehovah’s longsuffering is symbolized and sealed in the sacrament of holy baptism (I Pet. 3:20-21).

God’s longsuffering is an instance of what are often called His communicable attributes, that is, those divine perfections that He works into the hearts and lives of His people so that they reflect His virtues in a creaturely way.

Think of the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23-35, which could also be called the parable of the unlongsuffering servant! Regarding the slave and his master, we read, “The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with [i.e., be longsuffering towards] me, and I will pay thee all” (26). Regarding the slave and his fellow slave, we read, “And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with [i.e., be longsuffering towards] me, and I will pay thee all” (29).

The point of the parable is that we should be longsuffering towards and forgive those who have wronged us, if they ask for our forgiveness (and we should be willing to forgive those who wrong us, if they do not ask for our pardon). After all, Scripture itself tells us the lesson regarding forgiveness that Christ’s parable is designed to teach: “Jesus saith unto him [i.e., Peter], I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (22).

Forgive others! After all, God has been, and is, longsuffering towards you and has forgiven you billions of sins, like the servant who owes an unpayable debt in the parable. Thus we must be longsuffering and forgive others. The truth of God’s longsuffering is very practical and for some this is a hard spiritual lesson to learn. By meditating upon, and rejoicing in, God’s longsuffering in Himself and towards us miserable offenders, the Holy Spirit enables us to be longsuffering and forgiving to those who have sinned against us.

What Christ teaches in one of His inimitable parables, the apostle Paul states in one of his canonical epistles: “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved … longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye” (Col. 3:12-13). This is our calling as the undeserving objects of God’s longsuffering!

8. God’s Longsuffering and Our Suffering

Our covenant God is longsuffering towards His people in their suffering. David confessed this comforting truth in Psalm 86. After telling the Lord about his persecution by the ungodly—“O God, the proud are risen against me, and the assemblies of violent men have sought after my soul; and have not set thee before them” (14)—David consoles himself with these words: “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth” (15).

Similarly, Jeremiah prays, “O Lord, thou knowest: remember me, and visit me, and revenge me of my persecutors; take me not away in thy longsuffering: know that for thy sake I have suffered rebuke” (15:15). That is, “Do not, in thy longsuffering over me, permit my enemies to persecute me so long that they succeed in destroying me!”

In Christ’s parable in Luke 18:1-8, the widow is the object of great injustice and ill-treatment at the hands of her oppressor. Even the unjust judge, wanting to get rid of her, eventually vindicates her (4-5). Jesus draws this lesson from the parable: “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with [i.e., is longsuffering towards] them?” (7).

How is this longsuffering possible for the unchangeable and ever-blessed God? The answer is that God shows empathy and is longsuffering towards His people, especially in their sufferings, through Jesus Christ who is both God and man in one divine Person. As God, Jesus cannot suffer. As man, our Saviour is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15).

Our calling is obvious: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (16). Like the widow in the parable (as well as David and Jeremiah), we “ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1), even when we are oppressed and afflicted by the ungodly, for God suffers long and empathizes with us in Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 63 teaches the same truth, though without using the word “longsuffering”: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old” (9). This refers to the “love” and “pity” of the impassible God who was “afflicted” in “all” Israel’s “affliction” in “the angel of his presence,” Christ, who is God’s special divine angel (i.e., messenger) who “redeemed” and “saved” them. Again, as a man, our Saviour is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15).

Isaiah 63:9 declares the same message as Exodus 3:2. Where is Christ, “the angel [or special messenger] of the Lord”? In the burning bush, in the midst of the church experiencing the fiery afflictions of Pharaoh’s persecution. This means not only that He is “afflicted” in Israel’s “affliction” (Isa. 63:9). It also means that it is Christ’s presence in the Old Testament church which preserves it so that, though “the bush burned with fire,” it “was not consumed” (Ex. 3:2).

After the elders of Israel were told of God’s longsuffering towards and with them (in Christ), they were struck with awe: “when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped” (4:31).

Moving from the Israelites who were forced to make bricks without straw, James 5 refers to Christian employees who are abused in the work place and defrauded of their wages (4, 6). What is the exhortation God gives to His people in this Scripture? Join a labour union? Go on strike? Overthrow the “capitalist pigs”?

No, exercise the grace of longsuffering in light of the bodily return of Jesus Christ! “Be patient [i.e., be longsuffering] therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience [i.e., is longsuffering] for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient [i.e., be longsuffering]; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh … Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience [i.e., longsuffering]” (7-8, 10).

Notice the two examples given here of patience and longsuffering: first, a farmer waiting for the harvest (7) and, second, the Old Testament prophets who endured suffering for the truth they preached (10). The saint from Uz is then set forth by James for our emulation: “Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (11).

Hebrews 6 exhorts us to show Christian “diligence” to the “end” (11), “That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience [i.e., longsuffering] inherit the promises” (12), like Abraham (13-14), who was tested severely and, “after he had patiently endured [i.e., been longsuffering], he obtained the promise” (15).

We must not grow discouraged or bitter with our sovereign God because of our afflictions. We must not huff and throw in the towel. We must not protest, “But I have already suffered long enough!”

The teaching of James 5 and Hebrews 6 is that Christians will and must suffer, but that we must, by God’s grace, be longsuffering in our suffering! Why? Jesus Christ our Saviour is coming again to punish the wicked and deliver us! This hope in the fulfilment of God’s promise of perfect salvation and joy is our spiritual motivation to be patient and longsuffering in our afflictions and hardships.


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