You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20).
If you read this in Hebrew you discover that the word “generation” is not in the text. But it is implied. What is wrong with this translation, however, is that it fails to take into account the contrast. God won’t let wickedness continue for more than three or four generations, but he will be faithful “to thousands of generations” of those who love God and keep his commandments.
And it is said explicitly elsewhere:
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face (Deuternomy 7.9, 10).
OK, this only mentions one thousand generations, but it too contrasts this with the quick destruction of the wicked.
So why do we expect the wicked to flourish and the number of generations of the righteous to remain small?
According to Paul, once Jesus comes, there should be an explosion of grace and salvation relative to the past. As he writes in Romans 5:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So when we read in Esther 8 about a world-wide vindication of God’s people resulting in massive proselytization “from India to Ethiopia,” we should realize that that was rather minimal compared to what is to happen now that Jesus has come and died and risen again. God says he is faithful to a thousand generations, that leaves us with thirty-five thousand years left, if a generation is forty years. God says he is faithful to thousands of generations, which leaves us with 115 thousand years left. But I don’t want to be literalistic. I am sure that, just as God owns the cattle on more than a thousand hills (Psalm 50.10), so he will actually be faithful to many more generations of believers than merely thousands.
So God says to expect thousands of generations, and we’ve spent a few generations claiming that we are the last one. Paul writes that life through Jesus is more powerful than sin and death through Adam, and we preach that sin is universal and redemption only for a minority in history.
How does that honor what God says?