Is God’s Wrath His Dark Side?

|

It is easy to worship God for His love and His holiness. Many of His attributes naturally inspire our praise. Our emotions naturally engage as we sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or “The Solid Rock.” But how many hymns do we sing that celebrate the wrath of God against His enemies? How many pictures of God’s fiery indignation do we see on the walls of our churches?

We would never say this, but we often treat God’s wrath as if it were His dark side that we don’t talk about. Just like dad’s drinking habit that the kids don’t discuss or mom’s anger issues that are kept under wraps, God’s wrath against evil is the thing that we all recognize but don’t necessarily highlight.

The reasons are clear: at best, we understand God’s wrath to be an unfortunate requirement of His holiness. “God’s holy justice requires that sin be punished. Therefore, God is a God of wrath.” At worst, we wish God were not a God of wrath, desiring that He align more with our “superior” understanding of goodness.

Sinners do not easily embrace our explanations of God’s wrath. Our resignation that “it must be so” does not ring true to the ears of the faithless. Rather, they are turned off by the idea of a raging, angry God that obliterates swaths of people because they do not live up to His expectations.

Preaching through the prophets, I found myself repeatedly dealing with the theme of the “Day of the Lord” against Israel, which points to a future, worldwide “Day of the Lord” against sinners. In my effort to have a fresh message every week, I tried to understand the “why” of each particular prophet: what was God’s motivation in sending His wrath against Israel, Judah, or other nations? The picture of God that began to emerge is one that has revolutionized my understanding of God’s wrath, to the point that I now recognize God’s wrath as worthy of celebration beyond its simply being a necessary consequence of His holiness. The prophetic messages come from the darkest days in Israel’s history, but they reveal to us that every act of God’s wrath is an act of love.

Every act of God’s wrath is an act of love.

Ezekiel: God’s Wrath Corrects Destructive Sin

When the book begins, the prophet Ezekiel is exiled in Babylon. Back in the homeland, a nation is floundering in the worship of pagan gods, even within the temple of Yahweh. Even as God’s wrath was beginning to unfold, the people had completely abandoned the reality that their God was the one true God. How could God have a chosen nation if the people of the covenant had abandoned the most basic of the commandments in their worship of other gods? The message of Ezekiel shines forth through a phrase that is repeated 87 times in the book: “I am the LORD.” Beginning in chapter 5, God is going to judge Jerusalem, and “they shall know that I am the LORD” (5:13). In demonstrating God’s power, Ezekiel portrays God’s wrath against Israel as a corrective to their wrong thinking about His unique nature and character, thereby enabling them to once again be His covenant people. God executes His wrath in order to lead His people to repentance, and this picture of God’s wrath as coming from his Fatherly love is truly beautiful.

Hosea: God’s Wrath Brings Renewed Vows

In Hosea 2:1-13, God vividly describes the troubles He would allow to come upon Israel for her sin: drought, reproach, and destruction. The purpose of this wrath is seen in verses 14-23, where God describes His desire to renew His marriage with Israel. He is sending His wrath upon the nation to open their eyes to the folly of their sin, and ultimately to bring them to a place of repentance. God loves His bride; therefore, He sends His wrath to call her back to Himself. As a demonstration of relentless divine love, God’s wrath is beautiful.

As a demonstration of relentless divine love, God’s wrath is beautiful.

Joel: God’s Wrath Sets Things Right

Joel gives us the common understanding of God’s wrath as being necessitated by His justice. The book begins with allusions to God’s wrath against Egypt, which was the defining moment of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. But before the people grew excited about God’s delivering them again, the prophet lets them know that Israel is now slated to be the recipient of God’s wrath. In essence, Joel’s message was: “Repent and return, because the day of God’s wrath is forthcoming!” God must judge evil and vindicate His faithful people, to the end that Jerusalem would be a safe place for the people of God (3:17). God’s wrath sets the world right. Regardless of where it exists, evil will be purged, and justice will be served on those who oppressed God’s people (3:19). As God’s arm of justice, His wrath is beautiful.

Amos: God’s Wrath Punishes Evil

Amos is a powerful denunciation of Israel’s sins against the poor. In 3:2, God’s wrath is clearly pictured as a punishment of His people for their sin. And yet, even in the fury of His wrath, God invites the people to repent (ch. 5), promising a day of great blessing after His punishment has borne the fruit of repentance (9:11-15). As a punishment of, and a deterrent to, sin and oppression, God’s wrath is beautiful.

Obadiah: God’s Wrath Demonstrates His Faithfulness to His People

The audience changes as Obadiah prophesies against Edom, descendants of Esau. When Esau (Edom) ought to have shown solidarity  to his little brother Jacob (Israel), he instead abandoned him to be devastated by Babylon (1:11). Not only that, but, he also used Jacob’s destruction as an opportunity to plunder him and thus bring about further harm on him. Edom should have known better than to mess with “My people” (1:13)! Fulfilling His promise to Abraham to curse those who curse him and his descendants, God utterly destroys this “nation in the hills,” bringing them to complete ruin. God’s wrath was a powerful demonstration of His covenant faithfulness to His people; therefore, God’s wrath is beautiful.

Jonah: God’s Wrath Brings Repentance

In this familiar story, the prophet runs from God’s calling, motivated by His abhorrence of the evil nation of Assyria. God sends a storm as an arm of His wrath against His rebellious prophet, but simultaneously prepares a big fish for his rescue. Later, God sent a worm as an agent of His fierce wrath against a plant that had offered Jonah shade. These lessons were designed to teach and correct the prophet, bringing him to a place of repentance. God’s wrath is beautiful.

Micah: God’s Wrath Is Perfectly Balanced with His Mercy

At first glance, Micah’s message looks similar to that of Amos, as the prophet condemns Israel for their sins and promises judgement. However, interspersed throughout the book, we see offers of mercy: the gathering of the remnant (4:10), forgiveness (5:10-15), promises to shepherd them (2:12-13), and visions of a New Jerusalem (4, 5, 7). Who is like God, judging evil but forgiving the repentant! God calls His people to reflect the perfect cooperation of His justice and mercy (6:8). In its perfect balance, truly God’s wrath is beautiful.

Nahum: God’s Wrath Rescues the Oppressed

Within a few generations of God’s sending Jonah to Nineveh to preach mercy to the cruel city, we find that His mercy must give way to His compassion. In His mercy, God had withheld wrath from the cruel nation of Assyria during the time of Jonah. But every extension of His mercy was a prolonging of the suffering of the other nations, since Assyria did not turn from her murderous oppression. Nahum is a book of comfort for the nations (especially Israel) who were oppressed by Assyria (see 1:7, 13, 15), because the time had come for the evil nation to be punished for her wickedness. The result is that the nations clap over Nineveh’s destruction (3:19). Since God’s wrath rescues the victims of sin, God’s wrath is beautiful.

Habakkuk: God’s Wrath Accomplishes Ultimate Good

This book is a conversation between God and the prophet. Habakkuk asks God why He allows sin to continue unchecked in Israel. God’s response is not what the prophet wants to hear: God will send Babylon to punish Israel for her sin. The prophet replies that this is unfair; Babylon is even more sinful than Israel! God’s response is to reveal to Habakkuk that He plans to also punish Babylon according to her works. In chapter 3, God’s ultimate plan is to once again prove Himself faithful to His people (3:1-2) as he ultimately brings them victory (3:3-15). Habakkuk learns that God’s wrath on Israel is one step in His ultimate plan for the world, which leads him to faith and praise (3:16-19). Because God’s wrath accomplishes God’s good purposes, God’s wrath is beautiful.

God’s wrath is perfectly balanced with His mercy, and always ultimately accomplishes good in His world.

Zephaniah: God’s Wrath Restores Eden

Zephaniah enhances our understanding of God’s wrath by letting us see its result (3:9-20). If evil is the destructive agent that spiraled God’s beautiful creation into its current state of depravity, then that evil must be eradicated if God’s people is going to once again enjoy Edenic fellowship with Him. There will be no need for night guards or personal crimes detectives in the New Jerusalem, and it is that reality which makes the age to come so appealing. But in order for Eden to be reestablished, evil must be eradicated. Read the longing of God in Zephaniah 3:9-20, and you will see that God’s wrath, designed to bring this about, is beautiful.

Haggai: God’s Wrath Produces the Fear of the Lord

God’s wrath is not a major theme in Haggai, because the message is for those who are returning from exile. However, as the people selfishly focus on the rebuilding of their own homes instead of the temple, God ensures that they do not experience the abundant life they are selfishly seeking, as He sends drought (1:5-11). Haggai declares their sin, and the people repent and fear the Lord (1:12). Israel had to experience God wrath on a small scale to be reminded of their first allegiance to their Creator and Deliverer. Once they learned to fear the Lord, God was ready to promise them blessing (2:19). As a corrective agent for His straying people, God’s wrath is beautiful.

Zechariah: God’s Wrath Defends His People

Zechariah is a messianic prophecy-laden book that focuses on the coming King. He is pictured as a shepherd who is rejected and abandoned (11; 13:7-9), a priestly king (3-4; 6:9-15), a bloody sacrifice (9:11, 12:10) and a defender of His people (12:1-9; 14:1-5). When the Messiah King defends His people, He brings panic and blindness upon the enemy (12:4); he makes the feeblest among them mighty like King David (12:8) so that they act as His weapons of warfare (12:9). The landing of the Messiah’s foot splits the Mount of Olives in half (14:4). All of this is for the purpose of protecting and saving His people like a shepherd (9:15-16) from the assault of the nations. Remembering that God’s wrath targets destructive evil, and eradicates it to make way for the Messianic Kingdom, reminds us that God’s wrath truly is beautiful.

Malachi: God’s Wrath Upholds His Covenant

In Malachi, we see God’s response to two assaults on His covenant. First, we learn that the offense of Edom against Israel (as described in Obadiah) was so severe that the Edom would never be reestablished (1:1-5). But then God must also uphold His holy covenant by correcting those who had profaned it. Flawed sacrifices were being offered (1:13-14), which undermined both God’s teachings on holiness and the imagery of the spotless Lamb. God’s response is to rebuke and curse them, throwing the filth of their sacrifices on their faces (2:1-3). His purpose in this is to uphold His covenant with Levi (2:4). In chapter 3, God’s Messenger will purify the priesthood, resulting in pure sacrifices being offered (3:1-4). He will refine the evil from the nation so that He can once again bless them (3:5-4:1). Considering the immense value of God’s covenants for humanity, God’s careful upholding of His covenant through wrath is beautiful.

God loves the wanderer enough to draw him back to repentance and renewal through punishment.

It is true that God’s wrath is an outflow of His holiness, but the prophets, like the rest of Scripture, teach us that it is also an outflow of His love. God loves the wanderer enough to draw him back to repentance and renewal through punishment. He loves His people enough to protect them through His wrath. He loves victims of sin enough to rescue them through His wrath. He loves us enough to execute His wrath in order to restore unbroken Edenic fellowship with us. He upholds His covenant of love through His wrath, bringing about His loving plans for His people. God’s wrath is perfectly balanced with His mercy, and always ultimately accomplishes good in His world.

Therefore, we as believers do not need to shy away from the reality of God’s wrath as if it is His ugly side. Our adoration of God does not need to be inhibited by our reservations about the fierceness of his anger. Rather, we can truly celebrate God’s wrath for reasons other than malice for our enemies. Perhaps a great hymn will soon be written, celebrating God’s loving wrath as revealed in the prophets! Regardless, gaining a proper understanding of His motivation for wrath enables us to worship Him more fully, as we recognize that all His ways are good—even His wrath.

Joey Ratcliff
Joey Ratcliff is Campus Pastor at Aldersgate Christian Academy in Cincinnati, OH, where he resides with his wife, Andrea, and his five children. He is pursuing a Master of Divinity through Wesley Biblical Seminary.