That the Bible represents God as at times being moved to wrath against men is clearly a fact, but one which is not very acceptable in religious circles today. The emphasis upon the love of God in recent times, partly but not wholly a reaction against the sternness and hell-fire philosophy of an earlier age, is very right in its place, but if it involves the ignoring of important truths about God, then it becomes one-sided. RV Tasker, in his pamphlet The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God, sees the situation thus: there is today “widespread neglect and even denial of the doctrine of the divine wrath; and emphasis has been placed almost exclusively upon the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. In consequence the severity of Biblical Christianity has largely been lost sight of, with far-reaching and disastrous results … It is surely time that the balance was redressed …” (page v). These are vigorous words and they bring home to us the necessity of understanding the wrath of God in a manner not inconsistent with His love; but clearly if the Scriptures sometimes describe God as filled with wrath, we must make every effort to understand why.

The Sovereign Lord

God is sovereign in the world and man is His creature; if the creature rebels against His Creator’s will, then unless God is to abdicate His authority, the creature must in some way be disciplined. It is in this process that the wrath of God appears, but appears not just as an abstract principle or moral law as some modern writers see it; for instance C. H. Dodd: “Paul retains the concept of the ‘wrath of God’ not to describe the attitude of God to men, but to describe the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe” (Epistle to the Romans, page 23). This is certainly not the impression that a reading of the Bible would produce, for God’s wrath is presented as a very positive and personal reaction against human sin. The terms used are very striking in the original Hebrew, conveying the ideas of breathing, foaming, boiling over, breaking out under pressure, and heat. One recent writer examines the use in the Old Testament of the four most important of these terms and produces figures to show that they are used more than four times as often of God than they are of men! To this it will of course be replied that they are anthropomorphisms, that is, representations of an idea in human terms, and while there is no doubt truth in this, it seems impossible to resist the conclusion that in His wrath God reacts not simply as a moral principle but intensely personally; He feels displeasure at human sin; and if we contend that He feels intense love for His Son or for those He desires to save, how shall we deny that He can feel anger in certain circumstances where His grace and will is rejected?

Judgment

What light does the Old Testament throw upon the wrath of God?

First, it is represented as a grave sin to say that God will not bring judgment in some circumstances upon men. “All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, which say, The evil shall not overtake nor prevent us” (Amos 9:10). Again, through Zephaniah: “I will punish the men that are settled on their lees”, says God, “that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil”; in so saying, they reduce God to the level of an idol of wood or stone (Zeph 1:12).

Or again the word through Isaiah about “the scornful men” who were saying: “We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement: when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us …” (Isa 28:14–15); they were presuming to parley with the great enemy, death itself, which had been appointed as the divine judgment upon sin and to arrange their own terms for going down into Sheol. The reaction of God to such men is clear: it is a reaffirmation of His determination to destroy them. This judgment action of God is described variously as His coming, visiting (often rendered “punish”), and bringing evil. The coming is always an intervention in Israel’s affairs, though the people did not always recognize it as such, to right a situation which is wrong: the visiting is an inspection and examination, like the lord in the New Testament parable about the man without a wedding garment, who “came in to see (to examine) the guests”, doubtless an echo of the Old Testament idea of visiting; and the bringing evil upon them is the practical judgment such as drought or natural calamity or foreign invasion (see Amos 4 for examples).

As Psalm 78:49 puts it: “He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath and indignation and trouble, by sending angels of evil.”

The Sinner and the Sin

In a no doubt earnest desire to realize to the full the grace of God, it has become common these days to say: “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” That God earnestly desires the sinner to turn from his ways and live is certain, and we must not seek to minimize this aspect of Divine character; but an attempted distinction between the sinner and his sin does not seem to be in harmony with the Bible view of man’s responsibility for what he does. Sin has its origin in man and it is the sinner himself who is condemned in such passages as these: “The Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people: now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them” (Exod 32:9–10). So God’s judgment of David because of his sin: “Because thou hast despised me … behold, I will raise up evil against thee …” (2 Sam 12:10–11). “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the fruit of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword …” (Isa 1:19–20). Of Israel through Hosea: “All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them … I will love them no more” (9:15). And through Amos: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (3:2).

Three times in the early chapters of Jeremiah God, after recounting the rebellion of his people in their idolatry, immorality and violence and their refusal to accept correction and return to Him, exclaims: “Shall not I visit them for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?” (Jer 5:3–9, 20–29; 9:6–9). His condemnation of them is so strong that in the same early chapters four times He tells Jeremiah not to pray for the people: “Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee … Therefore I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and they shall cry unto me, but I will not hearken unto them … I will not hear them in the time that they cry unto me for their trouble … Pray not for this people for good … When they offer burnt offering and oblation, I will not accept them: but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the prestilence … For I will pour their wickedness upon them” (Jer 7:16, 11:11, 14; 14:11–12, 16).

Surely we can say of such passages that they represent God as moved in a very personal and intense way against human sin in circumstances of extreme rebellion; and equally that His anger is directed against those who have sinned in this way and is not just a condemnation of their way of life? Clearly when men reject the will of God, the men themselves become responsible for what they do.

The consideration of these Old Testament passages leaves us with some unanswered questions as yet, but it certainly demands a view of God in which His wrath has a place as well as His love.

The Vengeance of God

One of the unanswered questions is suggested by the phrase already quoted: “Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?” The very terms vengeance and jealousy, both used of God in His wrath, seem on the surface to convey a sense too petty and mean ever to be worthy of the Bible’s general picture of God’s majesty and grace. It is easy in such circumstances to conclude, as many do today, that it is the Old Testament writer who is at fault in that he does not truly represent God’s attitude, and so to adopt a lowered view of inspiration; but before resorting to such a view, which would have serious consequences for the authority of the words of Scripture for us, let us rather see whether we are not perhaps giving a sense to these terms which is not the true one. If a man smites his servant so that he die, says Exodus 21:20, “he shall surely be punished”, or avenged, for that is the word here: that is to say, a righteous retribution shall be inflicted. If Israel would repeatedly persist in rejecting the words and will of God, then He would bring upon them a sword “which shall execute the vengeance of the covenant” (Lev 26:25).

Why should the covenant exact a vengeance? Because it was the expression in practical terms of God’s will to receive Israel into fellowship with Himself in all His holiness and their rejection was a spurning of His grace; and to this He could not remain indifferent. God’s primary purpose, however, is not just the punishment of sinners but the affirmation and vindication of His own holiness: to this alone is His “vengeance” or retribution directed; and this is why He is described as “jealous”. How interesting to discover that jealousy and zeal are usually the same word in Hebrew. When Phinehas the priest carried out on God’s behalf a work of retribution in Israel, the divine verdict was: “Phinehas … hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy (or jealousy for me) among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy”; in other words, Phinehas was filled with a zealous desire that the holy name of God should not be profaned in Israel (Num. 25:11) (Phinehas’ action is further described as making atonement for Israel); we are a long way here from envy or vindictiveness.

The jealousy of God, then, is His zealous determination that His holiness shall ultimately prevail, as He declared through Isaiah: “I am Yahweh: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise unto graven images … For mine own sake will I do it; for how should my name be profaned? and my glory will I not give to another” (Isa 42:8; 48:11).

Offence to God’s Holiness

God intends to remain sovereign in His own world and sin is therefore an offence to His holiness; when the sinner is shown to be incorrigible, then the redeeming work ceases for him and he must be destroyed, but destroyed in a special sense, for the word sometimes used (cherem) really means “devoted”. A field “sanctified unto the Lord” as a vow, was in certain circumstances at the jubile to become “holy unto the Lord, as a field devoted; the possession thereof shall be the priest’s” (Lev 27:16–21); that is, it must be given up wholly to God’s use as a deliberate act of consecration and not used for the benefit of man. It is the same word which is used in God’s command to the Israelites to smite the Canaanites and “utterly destroy” them, that is, devote them entirely to Him (Deut 7:2); but sin when exposed to the holiness of God can have but one end, to be purged out and so destroyed. The Israelites, then, were not to carry out a work of extermination for their own advantage solely, but to co-operate with God in a work of moral judgment, and this work is called by God a “vengeance” in Isaiah 34: “For my sword … shall come down upon Edom, upon the people of my curse, to judgment”; this “devoting” (for it is the same word, cherem) is described in verse 8 as “the day of the Lord’s vengeance, the year of recompense in the controversy of Zion” (Isa 34:5–8). Evidently much careless comment about the wrath and judgments of God in the Old Testament could have been avoided if proper care had been taken to discover what the important terms really mean.

God “Comforted”

When God’s redeeming holiness has carried out its purging work, His anger abates (it is “but for a moment”, whereas His mercy is everlasting), and surprisingly to us He is said to “be comforted”: “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty one of Israel, Ah, I will ease me (be comforted) of mine adversaries and avenge me of mine enemies”, and the passage goes on to describe how God will “purge” and “restore” and “redeem” in a remarkable combination of judgment and salvation (Isa 1:24–26). Of corrupt Israel God says through Ezekiel: “Thus shall mine anger be accomplished and I will satisfy my fury upon them”, or rather, will bring to rest my fury toward them (RV mrg), “and I will be comforted; and they shall know that I the Lord have spoken in my zeal”; or again: “So will I bring to rest my fury toward thee (RV mrg) and my jealousy (zeal) shall depart from thee and I will be quiet and be no more angry” (Ezek 5:11–13; 16:42).

So the wrath of God operates in a manner which is never petty, nor malicious, nor capricious, for it is always consistent with His own holiness and righteousness, always aims at achieving a state of peace between man and Himself and is always the expression of His will to receive man into fellowship with Himself; for this is the highest good He can bestow upon man. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that passages of Scripture often link together His vengeance and His grace: the “acceptable year of the Lord” is associated with “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa 61:1–2); “Thou wast a God”, says the psalmist about Israel, “that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their doings” (99:8). The wrath of God is an instrument to reform man, to save him from himself and to bring him back to his God if only he will “consider” (Ezek 18:28), and as such it is an essential manifestation of God’s love.

Christ’s Teaching

Though this is an Old Testament study, it is right that we should consider very briefly whether the New Testament offers a different picture of the divine wrath.

Jesus consistently upheld the righteousness of God and the fact of human sin. His cleansing of the temple with a scourge of cords, because it should have been a house of prayer whereas the Jews had made it a den of thieves, reminded the disciples of the phrase: “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up”; zeal, the very word used of the jealousy of God for His holiness and associated with His wrath. His judgment of the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, was one of woe for them: “Ye serpents, ye vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell?” His judgment of the man who caused one of the “little ones” who believed in him to stumble, was: “It is profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.” His disciples were not to fear men “which kill the body and after that have no more that they can do”, but rather to fear God “who after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell”. To those who refused to believe in him, his sentence was that they should be condemned and die in their sins. This is but a random selection, and while no one would pretend that they represent the complete attitude of Christ to human sin, these sayings do form part of the revelation of God in Christ, just as much as those which display the divine love and mercy: “To thrust these severe sayings on to one side and to concentrate attention solely upon passages of the Gospels where the divine Fatherhood is proclaimed, is to preach a debilitated Christianity which does not and cannot do what Christ came into the world to do, to save men from the wrath to come” (Tasker).

The Apostles’ Teaching

What of the apostles? John declares that the man who does not obey the Son “shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him”. Paul speaks of men in their sin as “children of wrath” and has a sense of a “wrath to come” from which the believers in Christ are delivered. To the Romans he quotes a passage from Psalm 78:49 and speaks of the “day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God”, who will render to the unrepentant and rebellious “wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish”. The epistle to the Hebrew Christians contains the warning to the wilful sinners among them that having trodden under foot the Son of God and spurned the spirit of grace, there remained nothing for them but “a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries”.

The attitude of the apostles was then in harmony with that of their Lord, and both with the spirit of the Old Testament. “The love of God”, says a modern writer, “demands as its correlative the wrath of God, just because God does care and because He is man’s true God; He has called man to fellowship with himself and man’s rejection of that fellowship is his ruin and perdition. Because the New Testament emphasizes the love of God, it also emphasizes His wrath …”

In our day when so much emphasis is laid upon the love and grace and bountiful forgiveness of God, all so right as aspects of His redeeming work, let us not be afraid to uphold that completer view which is that of the Bible itself, and so to understand the words of Paul: “Behold now the goodness and severity of God.”