Let’s step into dangerous territory and speak directly about the anger of God.
Our own worldly hearts testify with the liberalism entrenched in Western churches: speaking on this topic is both dangerous and unpalatable. Preachers, including this author, dance around hell when speaking to a friendly congregation, let alone the outside world. A colleague answering a work-mate during a smoking-break, waters-down God’s wrath to make Christianity seem almost acceptable. We never quite succeed, but we do our best to make God more like us, or at least how we like to project ourselves.
Children’s Bibles, like the Jesus Story Book Bible, amongst others, morph God’s holy anger into longing sadness; his judgement against sin becomes a hovering pity that people don’t understand that he loves them. Modern approaches to Christian education avoid God’s anger and righteous judgment, at least, not in front of the children.
If a young person’s world-view is shaped by the age of seven to twelve, and they’ve never heard that from the Bible: God not only loves his people, but also breaks out in anger against sinful behaviour, then sentimentality and self-esteem will eventually clash with scriptural truth. A hundred and fifty years have taken us a long way from JC Ryle’s, Children’s Stories which opens with the story of Elisha and The Two Bears. God judges children because he actually takes them seriously.
Challenges don’t just come from the children’s ministry bookshelf but from the data projector too. The Bible Project beautifully summarises Biblical books and doctrines in unparalleled educational videos, but consistently removes God’s wrath from its story. Grief and pain replaces God’s anger at the Golden Calf; and rather than God’s wrath revealed against the world in Romans 1, “the nations are trapped in sin”. The passive replaces the active. Sadness replaces anger.
When one of the most used Christian websites, one of the most popular kid’s Bible, and almost all preaching and teaching reflects the cultural zeitgeist, that is, the air we breathe, speaking about wrath seems dangerous, divisive and unpleasant.
But there is a far greater danger than the fear of man.
Writing, thinking and discussing God’s anger is terrifying for believers, if we stop, even for a moment, and think. The world we inhabit will face God’s wrath one day, many people without a saviour. What about us?
A shiver creeps within me, and perhaps you, that we must not misrepresent God in any way, by overemphasising or underemphasising this most holy and terrifying of topics. What we speak about now, will be experienced then. This calls us to a place of relative safety, standing on God’s word is better than standing over it. When we speak on this topic, let’s hear Jesus’ words. “I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Lk. 12:5).
With care, humility and a little trembling, we must know the disease and its prognosis if we will seriously drink the medicine God has on offer. But what we are facing is not an depersonalised disease, but our creator whom we have offended.
Two broad perspectives frame our discussion of God’s anger in the Bible: the immediate and instantaneous, as well as the long-term, and even eternal plans of God.
In the New Testament, Romans describes a present wrath and a future wrath to come (Rom 1:18ff; 2:5). Christ’s death and resurrection saves us from that wrath to come (Rom 5:9). The indwelling work of the Holy Spirit, the internal application of Christ’s death and resurrection, transforms the inner person, and mitigates against the present wrath, the debasing our minds and passions (Rom 12:1-2; cf. 1:18,24,28). We are being saved out of the present wrath and will be saved from the day of wrath to come by the death and life of the New Adam, God’s long-planned and patiently worked out strategy to turn aside his own wrath, self-propitiation, in other words.
The Old Testament prepares us for Christ’s atonement with Israel’s regular and annual sacrificial system. God’s long suffering anger at a sinful world is held back from the second page until the second last, finding a release at the crucifixion of the Son of God.
But the Old Testament also displays a different side of atonement, a speedy side, where the Lord’s quickly kindled anger needs to be dealt with decision and haste. Zipporah’s swift circumcision skills stop God consuming Moses’ family in his wrath (Ex. 4:24-26). Moses himself steps decisively into the breach to turn away God’s burning anger from wiping out the whole nation of Israel (Ex. 32). Even his relative Phinehas’ fast action spearing the amorous idolatrous adulterers is commended by God (Num. 25). It turns away God’s wrath. Several kings, prophets and priests act to deal with a flare up of God’s righteous wrath against the sin in his own precious people.
How do these quick atoning actions prepare us for the long-planned self-propitiation of Christ on the cross? And what do they reveal to us about his anger that he mostly withholds from unleashing to us now?
1. The character of God is not a cartoon: his anger is slow, yet kindled quickly
The first thing we must learn is that God does grows angry, whether or not, to us, this seems quick or slow. But God is not like a tired mother whose kids hassle her when she gets home from work, or a stressed out father who can’t handle one more person asking him for money. God’s character is consistent. Slowness-to-anger is a much part of his character as mercy and grace.
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:6-7)
God proclaims to Moses that he does not have a short fuse, that he is long-suffering. But his own description is not mono-dimensional. If he is to stay true to his whole character, that anger will actually burn. He will repay iniquity, and “by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). Slow-to-anger does not mean no-to-anger.
Remember the setting. The Israelites had just heard the Ten Commandments and cut a solemn covenant with God. However, they cheated on the honeymoon by making and worshiping an idol of a golden calf (Ex. 20, 24, 32). The one whose name is Jealous showed Moses what they deserved. Here is insight into the internal character of God.
“Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” (Ex. 32:10)
Moses pleaded. God relented. Nonetheless, many were destroyed by God in a plague. While Moses’ prayer was the means, the real foundational reason God spared Israel was his own faithfulness to his promises (Ex. 32:13). In this context of anger burning and anger relenting, God reveals his character to Moses. Who he was meant that some were destroyed. Who he was meant that many were spared. This surrounding story fleshes out God’s self description. And the Lord’s self-description of his character explains the events.
God’s rage is not like ours: bodily, visceral and bio-chemical. A teenager punches the wall because he stubbed his toe. A middle-aged man who fails at work and who has never forgiven his family becomes a ticking time-bomb. The object of his outburst might be a young driver who waited more than two seconds before taking off at the green traffic light. God is not like us.
The Lord’s anger is product of his holy mind, directed only at the guilty party, and bringing to bear all of his character, promises and plans.
If in the Old Testament, the Lord always instantaneously burned against everyone who sinned, there would be no human race. If in the Old Testament, God never burned against anyone we’d be tempted to treat his anger as hypothetical rather than real.
2. The quickly flaring anger of God in the past warns and teaches later generations about God’s long-suffering anger
A teacher who never displays anger at rowdy students is just as weak as a teacher who always is shouting. The most respected disciplinarians are those everyone knows “has it in them”, but who keep most of their disciplinary powder dry. The students must see a hint of follow-through early on, so they know the teacher is not making false threats.
We know God’s character is long-suffering anger, but we learn that this anger is real from past stories.
What made God’s anger burn so quickly teaches us a lot too, and is often so unexpected. One theme emerges: misusing the symbols and means of his grace and kind presence particularly evokes swift reaction: eg. using unauthorised fire in the Holy Place (Lev. 10:1-7); touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:7); or speaking against his servant Moses (Num. 11:9). The Lord’s anger instructs his people not to despise the very gifts he gives for protection, redemption and leadership. In the New Testament, this continues. How we treat the fulfilment of the sacrificial system, the temple, the king, prophet and priest, true circumcision, the Holy of Holies, in other words, Jesus Christ, is the fundamental predictor of God’s favour. Little wonder, he says,
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (Jn 3:36)
Rather than being hidden asides and ignored as past embarrassing blemishes, the times of God’s quickly poured out wrath are pivotal in instructing all subsequent generations. What will again bring God’s long-suffering anger? Psalm 95 says we must learn from the past failures. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah”, when they grumbled against God (Ps. 95:7-8). This Psalm used to be read out most weeks in church as a warning for us before the Bible reading. “I swore in my wrath,”They shall not enter my rest.” (Ps 95:11) Hebrews applies this warning directly to New Testament people too (Heb. 4). If we now harden our hearts to God’s goodness, how can we expect anything different to his past reaction?
Psalm 106 also recounts a litany of events where God’s anger broke out to judge his people: rebellion at the Red Sea (6-12); grumbling about food (13-15); leadership challenges against Moses (16-18); the golden calf (19-23); faithlessness when they should have entered the land (24-27); turning to sexual immorality and idolatry with the Baal of Peor (28-31); Meribah (32-33); and failure to conquer the land, and instead worshipping its gods (33-46). God’s wrath and judgment are recalled in each, but the final word of the Psalm reminds us that God did not destroy the whole people. God’s character means that he will continue with his people because of his promise, but his anger is real nonetheless.
Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people … Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Psa. 106:40,44-45)
The New Testament applies the stories of God’s holy anger and judgement in exactly the same way as these two Psalms. For instance, the stories of idolatry, sexual immorality and grumbling are told in 1 Corinthians 10 as examples to make Christ’s people very careful in how they approach exactly the same topics. In their own time the quick outbreaks against his people were “an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor 10:11).
Most drivers don’t feel guilty for speeding until they see the police lights in their rear vision mirror. Even for Christ’s forgiven people, God’s judgement reminds us that our sin is not just a little bit dirty, but is completely horrifically filthy. When we speed we break the law, but when we sin we not only break the law, but also personally offend the one made who that law. Paul teaches about the sinfulness of sin by reminding us of God’s future stored up wrath.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. (Col. 3:5)
In this same way, God’s quickly flared-up anger against Achan, in the Old Testament, and Ananias’ in the New, put the fear of God in everyone in their time, as well as generations to come (Josh 7; Acts 5). Wrath teaches us the seriousness of sin.
Every moment when we read that God broke-out against his own people, we are reminded that he should by all rights do this all the time, and that it is only, at every moment, by God’s mere pleasure, that we are not destroyed. That, and the atonement of Jesus Christ.
By re-writing God’s character for kids, by avoiding this topic for adults, and by not witnessing God’s anger to the world, we act like God’s un-appointed public relation officers, rather than faithful servants. Is it right to misrepresent God’s character? If God thinks we should remember these stories, why do we try to forget them?
3. Old Testament examples of quick atonement and Christ’s greater atonement
There are many examples in the Old Testament where God’s anger pours out quickly. The wise will take this as a warning.
But what about those situations where God’s anger is averted by decisive human actions? We’ve mentioned already Zipporah’s circumcision skills and Moses’ prayer intervention after the golden calf. But two examples particularly use the language of wrath, decisive speed and atonement. The first was during the populist anti-aaronic revolution of Korah, and the second in the aftermath of wide-spread flagrant idolatry and adultery even when the whole assembly was weeping in repentance before tent of meeting (Num. 16, 25). Both were unfinished work, sin was still spreading, even though heaven’s judgment had already come down on earth.
God’s anger was averted in one by Aaron’s quick action, using the recent symbol of God’s clear affirmation as now the instrument of atonement.
And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun.” And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. (Num. 16:46-48)
Phinehas, on the other hand, kept God’s original command to kill all those who led the people into sin (Num. 25:4).
And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. (Num. 25:6-8)
If any passage reaffirms the basic truth that sadness and wrath are not the same thing, it is this one. The people were sad, but God was angry; and only Phinehas knew how to turn that anger away.
“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. (Num. 25:11)
Interestingly, both acts of atonement were made by priests, Aaron and, his grandson Phinehas. Their regular method of atonement, turning away God’s wrath, was the sacrificial system, daily sin and guilt offerings, and the yearly day of atonement (Lev. 4-6, 16). But here they stepped outside the regular, to stop the immanent destruction of even more people.
But how do these, and all the other previously mentioned, quick humans actions point to us our atonement in Christ? Besides yet another reminder of the reality of God’s wrath, as we’ve seen, there is at least one difference and one similarity.
A. Christ’s atonement was completely planned and dealt with even greater wrath
While some describe Jesus Christ as being crushed in the wheels of history, a victim of evil people, and an unfortunate martyr, the Bible consistently proclaims that his atoning death was:
- planned by God before the creation of the world (1 Pet. 1:19-20; Rev. 13:8),
- proclaimed consistently in all the Old Testament (Lk. 24:46-47),
- seen by Christ himself as the purpose of his incarnation (Heb. 9:27-10:10; Mk. 10:45; Gal. 2:20),
- and was a real propitiation, a turning aside of God’s anger, in other words, saving his people from the terrible future day of wrath (Rom. 2:5; 3:25; 5:9; Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10).
If God reacted favourably to the determined prayers of Moses, respected the fast priestly intercession of Aaron, and if he responded to the speedy outward circumcision done by Zipporah, and he ended his anger because of the impulsive zeal of Phinehas, how much more will he receive the work of his unique eternal Son, that was planned from before time (Rom 8:31-39)!
If God hadn’t shown us these Old Testament examples of his long-suffering anger breaking out in holy rage, we might not have taken sin seriously. And if we hadn’t seen even these small pictures of wrath being turned away, we just might have thought propitiation was impossible. Each Old Testament example gives us a taste, Christ gives us the meal, and the daily bread that sustains us every day.
When we rob people of the truth of God’s wrath, we don’t just steal from them the warning God wants us all to hear. We also deface the glory of Christ’s work on the cross.
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:8)
B. Humans are called to act swiftly and decisively to his planned atonement.
There is something else we learn from those who acted swiftly to deal with God’s wrath. In the Old Testament, quick wrath needed to be dealt with quickly by human leaders. But even though God’s stored-up wrath was eternally planned, perfectly prepared and wonderfully dealt with in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, there is still the same urgency for all who would receive him.
Those outside the church have an urgency since we don’t know if we’ll ever hear the gospel again, the time of our death, or the hour of Christ’s return. Now is the time for repentance, the day of God’s salvation (Acts 2:36-41; 2 Cor. 6:2). Quickly respond, while you still can! And the word is especially also a word for those inside the church family. Every day is a chance to strengthen each other and cling to Christ.
As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Heb. 3:11-14)
It would be a great danger to doctor the character of God and remove his anger to make Christianity more acceptable to our world, but an even greater danger if that impulse led us to not take Christ seriously.
The church has a choice like the Israelites, freshly rescued from Egypt. Follow God as he has revealed himself or fashion him into how we want him to be. Remember what happened that time.
This Psalm is quoted so many times about Jesus in the New Testament. It pulls together everything we have been saying. God’s long-suffering anger is real and is quickly kindled. Be wise. Be warned.
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:4-12)
Blessed are those who take refuge in Jesus.