Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
Bookmark and Share

God’s Longsuffering

Herman Hoeksema

Closely related to God’s virtues of love, grace and mercy is the attribute of longsuffering. In fact, it may be viewed as an aspect or operation of these virtues. In the New Testament, we have the terms μακροθυμεῖν (makrothumein—to be longsuffering) and μακροθυμία (makrothumia—longsuffering) to denote the idea of longsuffering. In the Old Testament, the term that most nearly approaches this idea is אֶ֥רֶך אַפַּ֖יִםְ (e-rek appa-yim—long or slow of anger, patient).

אֶ֥רֶך אַפַּ֖יִםְ (e-rek appa-yim) occurs in Exodus 34:6: “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” From verse 5, we learn that the Lord here proclaims His name before His servant Moses. In Numbers 14:18, Moses appeals to this name of Jehovah in his prayer that God may pardon the iniquity of His people, whom He had threatened to destroy: “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.” Here אֶ֥רֶך אַפַּ֖יִםְ (e-rek appa-yim) is used in close connection with the mercy of Jehovah.

Similarly, אֶ֥רֶך אַפַּ֖יִםְ (e-rek appa-yim) occurs in Psalm 86:14-16: “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. But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, long suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth. O turn unto me, and have mercy upon me; give thy strength unto thy servant, and save the son of thine handmaid.”

Not only does “longsuffering” occur here in close connection with God’s grace and mercy, but the poet also appeals to this longsuffering as he is threatened with destruction by the enemies who encompass him and seek after his soul. In all these passages, “longsuffering” denotes an attitude towards His people, whom in His sovereign mercy He desires to save.

Striking is the passage in 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.” Evidently, the prophet here conceives of God’s longsuffering as an attitude of God toward Jeremiah, as he is surrounded by His enemies who seek to destroy him. God’s longsuffering is even conceived as the ultimate cause or reason for his suffering at the hand of the wicked. The meaning of the prayer is “Do not, in thy longsuffering over me, permit the enemy so long to persecute me that they succeed, and I am taken away.”

Luke 18:7 expresses the same idea: “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?” The reading μακροθυμῶν (makrothumōn—being longsuffering) is preferred to μακροθυμεῖ (makrothumei—is he longsuffering). Mακροθυμῶν (makrothumōn—being longsuffering) is the more difficult reading and μακροθυμεῖ (makrothumei—is he longsuffering) may easily have been substituted to simplify the meaning according to the idea of the copyist. Besides, μακροθυμῶν (makrothumōn—being longsuffering) expresses the idea that is in harmony with the context. Mακροθυμεῖ (makrothumei—is he longsuffering) would deny that God is longsuffering over His people, while in the context emphasis falls exactly on the idea that God is longsuffering over them. The substitution of the indicative form of the verb may be explained from the attempt to remove the apparent conflict with verse 8, where we are emphatically assured that God will avenge His people speedily. We must maintain, therefore, that the participle gives the correct reading.

Moreover, sound exegesis forbids explaining “with them,” in Luke 18:7, as referring to the enemy who hates and persecutes the church and causes the elect in the world to suffer. The enemies are not mentioned here. The Lord is speaking of the elect who suffer persecution in the world, who are exhorted always to pray and never to faint, and who are presented here as crying unto God day and night. In Luke 18:8, the Lord assures us that God will avenge them speedily. In the midst of all these assertions concerning the elect, we read that God is longsuffering “with them” (over them). It would be in violation of all sound exegesis to refer this phrase to the enemies of the people of God.

The idea in Luke 18:7 is, therefore, the same as the idea in Jeremiah 15:15. Except that Luke 18:8 adds that God will quickly avenge His people. The longsuffering of God is surely an aspect of His mercy toward His people. The longsuffering of God is surely an aspect of His mercy toward His elect. By the addition of the promise that He will speedily avenge them, the idea that He will permit them to suffer needlessly is excluded. From Luke 18:7-8, as well as from Jeremiah 15:15, we learn that God’s longsuffering is an aspect or operation of His mercy over His people, conceived of as being objects of hatred and persecution in the world.

The same thought is expressed in 2 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.” With a view to the glorious hope of the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, believers are exhorted to account the longsuffering of God as salvation (v. 15).

In the epistles of Peter, the church is conceived as the company of strangers and sojourners in the world, who have the promise of final salvation and hope for the realization of that promise, but who, while in the world, must suffer for Christ’s sake. Especially because of their present state of distress and tribulation in the world, they fervently long for the realization of the promise and for the coming of the Lord in glory. Undoubtedly, they had expected the coming of the Lord at an early date, forgetting that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as one day. Under all these circumstances they began to be impatient. Their condition was aggravated by the scorn of the mockers, who pointed to the patent fact that all things remained as they had been from the beginning. Thus the saints considered it slackness that the Lord had not yet fulfilled His promise.

But the apostle exclaims that this apparent tarrying of the Lord is not to be looked upon as slackness. This is only a negative way of saying that He will come as soon as possible for the salvation of His elect. As the Lord expressed it at the close of the parable of the unjust judge, He will avenge them speedily. The fact that He is still tarrying must accounted as His longsuffering toward the elect. They must all be saved. He is not willing that any of them should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Only after the number of the elect is full can the promise of God be finally and completely realized. It is not necessary to add that the interpretation that explains the term “all” as referring to all men is utterly impossible.

(Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics [Grandville, MI: 2004], vol. 1, pp. 166-169)