Sundown October 3 begins the holiest day of the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the time to seek God’s forgiveness for all our sins over the past year. Those who observe the day will fast from sundown to sundown, many attending three different synagogue services throughout the day and night.
Whether God even exists, much less listens and responds to us is a question in many hearts and minds. Even the concept of sin—apart from great crimes that most people don’t commit—is often a point of confusion.
Within the liturgy of the services a prayer, often chanted by the cantor or sung by a choir, opens a Biblical window of understanding into what seems an inscrutable mystery to many Jewish people. The song, titled “Mi Chamocha,” or “Who is Like You?” poses a question asked by Moses in Exodus 15:11, as well as by the prophet in Micah 7:18.
The question: “Who is a God Like You?” is rhetorical. We’re not looking to compare others with Him, but rather to fix our eyes on Him, to understand His uniqueness and His greatness.
This was a lifelong passion for the prophet Micah, whose very name means, “who is like the Lord.” The prophet’s name was a constant reminder of his passion for God and his quest to know Him more deeply. There is no greater quest because there is no one greater than God, as the prophet and the prayer so beautifully illustrate:
Who is a God like You,
And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?
He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in mercy.
He will again have compassion on us,
And will subdue our iniquities.
You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.
You will give truth to Jacob
And mercy to Abraham,
Which You have sworn to our fathers
From days of old. (Micah 7:18–20)
Micah’s closing hymn of praise reflects back on the previous “Mi Chamocha,” the Song of Moses from Exodus 15, which emphasizes God’s power and strength. This picture points out the uniqueness of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace, both in terms of who He is and what He will do.
Many people find forgiveness very difficult indeed—not so with God. It is the natural outworking of His nature. It is part of His character. Knowing that God wants to forgive our sin is a powerful truth that can set us free from bondage to fear and a whole host of other pains and sorrows.
But that forgiveness comes in a specific context—a personal relationship with God. Micah tells us the forgiveness He extends is to the “remnant of His inheritance.” Israel is God’s inheritance. They belong to Him, but have strayed from Him. Only a remnant of His inheritance is willing to acknowledge their sin and accept God’s terms for atonement, and they are the ones who receive His mercy and forgiveness. John’s gospel tells us: “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11–13).
It is so important to know what God has promised. Otherwise, we live by mistaken notions of who God is and what He will or won’t do.
As it is with Israel, so it is with the rest of humanity. God will forgive those who repent and receive forgiveness on His terms.
The fact is, God is passionate; He is angered by sin and rebellion. But it is not His intention to stay angry. God actually delights, takes pleasure in showing mercy—and He has made a way to do it without compromising His righteousness. So when we ask for God’s mercy we are not struggling to persuade God to reluctantly stay His hand. Rather, we are acknowledging and calling upon this marvelous aspect of His character. What else can we know about what God is like?
He will again have compassion on us; in Hebrew, “yashuv yerachamenu.” He will return his rachamim, His grace to us. The Hebrew root word rechem means “a mother’s womb.” God’s love is like the love that a mother feels for the child of her womb.
Forgiveness and pardon from the Lord do not merely lift the burden of guilt and sin, they bestow the fullness of God’s blessing, the riches of His love and the resources of His kindness to us. Without those resources we are empty vessels without much to give. But once we receive his “rachmones” we are overflowing with spiritual strength and fulfillment that can bless others and change the very world we live in.
Micah also points out that our merciful God will defeat sin. This is a powerful promise mentioned in many books of the Bible. God will wage a war against sin, and will defeat sin as surely as He defeated the armies of Pharaoh. He promises to tread sin under foot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. What a marvelous picture!
Do we look upon sin as our enemy? Going all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel, God warned Cain concerning his worst enemy: “sin is crouching at the door and its desire is for you” (Genesis 4:7b). So it is for us; sin is a rapacious, vile disease that threatens to hurtle us into an abyss of darkness and despair. Yet how often do we give in to its potent desire?
But here is the wonder of it all. God does not leave us alone to battle the sin that would overtake us. Sin is God’s enemy and He has promised to defeat it. I believe that God has done this on a personal level for all who trust Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus died in our place. He shed His own blood to pay the penalty for our sin. He has broken the power of sin. But one day He also will forever banish the presence of sin. I look forward to that day, don’t you? But will it really happen?
Well, yes it will because our God keeps His promises. Micah ends his hymn by reflecting on that fact. It is so important to know what God has promised. Otherwise, we live by mistaken notions of who God is and what He will or won’t do. Or worse, we just pretend He is not there at all. How sad, how foolish, and yet this is how most people live, both Jews and Gentiles.
My heart breaks especially for my own Jewish people; so many will sit in synagogue this month without a shred of understanding about who God is and what He is offering. That heartbreaking fact propels and compels me—and all my Jews for Jesus colleagues—to be His witnesses so that our people will hear: “The good news this Yom Kippur is this. God is ready to love you and forgive you and cleanse you and heal you. And He does it all in the person of His Son the Messiah.” Please pray with and for us that the gospel seeds we are planting will penetrate and grow in the hearts of many Jewish people in the coming days.