Last week in Revelation 15, John has a vision of seven angels carrying the seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God. In Revelation 16, these bowls of God’s wrath are poured out. Before moving on to chapter 16, however, we are going to spend next week discussing what the “wrath of God” actually entails in the Hebrew Scriptures. To guide our discussions, we are going to use chapter 5 “The Mystery and Meaning of Wrath” and chapter 6 “Ira Dei” of Abraham Heschel’s book The Prophets. This is one of the top ten books that I have ever read and the best book that I am familiar with on the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament. Heschel has an incredible gift of penetrating the mind of the prophets. We have used this book before in our discussion of Amos and Second Isaiah. Heschel makes ten points concerning God’s wrath. The first five are below.
The Embarrassment of Anger:
When the Scriptures speak of the wrath of God, that should cause some embarrassment for us. God is beyond human emotion and particularly anger or wrath. Pagan religions have angry, petulant, petty, homicidal gods like Kali, Thor, Huitzilopochtli, or Zeus, but our God is certainly beyond such base human emotions. There is a myriad of ways to deny God’s wrath in the Scriptures such as by reinterpreting these biblical passages either spiritually (God is not wrathful, rather our experience in moving away from God feels like wrath), by reading the passage as not speaking of God but a lower angelic being, or by simply asserting that we project our human emotions on God.
According to Heschel, however, our problem with prohibiting wrath as being associated with God, is that we misunderstand the nature of wrath itself. We think of anger as being evil or irrational, but that is merely its association, not its essence. We should think of anger like fire – at the right place and at the right time it is invaluable. However, once it goes out of control, it becomes evil and destructive. Anger can be good. The opposite of anger is the virtue of patience. However, patience in the face of unremitting evil is not virtuous but is evil as well. If evil triumphs only when good men do nothing, then it is anger, not patience, by which evil is halted. To paragraphs Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time for patience and a time for righteous indignation.
The great theme of Dr. Heschel’s book is the pathos of God which is God’s intimate involvement with his creation. The God of the Bible does not simply wind-up creation and let it run. Rather he participates within the created order to bring about a just and personal encounter with us. Therefore, when we speak of the “wrath of God” it is not a petulant, compulsive act of God divorced from any standards of justice, rather the “wrath of God” is an exercise of divine sovereignty, righteousness, and freedom in the pursuit of this very standard of justice. God’s wrath is never spontaneous, irrational, and unpredictable but always is in reference to the behavior of humankind and motivated by God’s intimate concern for right and wrong. God’s mercy and God’s wrath are not opposites but correlatives, it is his very concern for us that is the source of his anger. As Hosea says: “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn, that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up.” Hosea 6:1.
The Evil of Indifference:
To proclaim that God is good is to proclaim that God cannot be indifferent to evil. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. Indifference is more universal, more contagious, and more dangerous than the evil it ignores. God’s wrath signals the end of divine indifference. God’s comfort to the afflicted is that evil is never the end and never the climax of history. (This is a great summary of the entirety of John’s vision in Revelation.) As Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” God’s wrath is God breaking his silence over injustice.
The Contingency of Anger:
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s wrath is always hypothetical, conditional, and fully contingent on our conduct and our response to the call for repentance. The Scriptures repeatedly stress that God is patient, long-suffering, and slow to anger. Because of God’s pathos, patience and forbearance necessarily have limits. The message of God’s impending wrath, therefore, is a reminder that God’s mercy cannot be taken for granted. This contingency is best illustrated in the story of Jonah. There, the very reluctant prophet preaches God’s coming wrath upon the great enemy of Judah, the Assyrian Ninevites. The great city repents of its evil and God’s wrath is turned away (much to the despair of Jonah himself). God’s wrath is never final, but always contingent. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.” Jonah 3:10.
I Will Rejoice in Doing Them Good.
The Wrath of God is not a fundamental attribute of who God is. God delights in the good (Jer. 32:41) and in steadfast love (Micah 7:18). The essential nature of God is love. 1 John 4:8. God’s wrath, however, arises from these very attributes. Goodness, Justice, and Love is the measure of God’s anger. Divine sympathy for the victims of human cruelty is the motive of God’s anger. God’s wrath is never inscrutable or unaccountable, but directly related to his delight in the good and in love, for when these are transgressed, wrath is enkindled. Wrath is not a fundamental attribute of God, but is a transient and reactive condition occasioned by our cruelty to others. God’s wrath only arises because “our guilt is great, and our sins are flagrant.” Jer. 30:15.
We will look at Heschel’s concluding five points in the next email.
Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is Chicken Divan. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!
Hate evil, and love good,Amos 5:15
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.