The Revelation – The Meaning and Mystery of Wrath – Abraham Heschel, Pt. 2

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. A summary of Dr. Heschel’s second five points on the wrath of God are below.

Anger Lasts a Moment:

Throughout the Old Testament, God’s love is described as everlasting. God’s anger is never described as such. Rather, God’s wrath is always described as lasting but a moment. It is something that happens only for a while, and never something that abides forever. God’s wrath is an action occasioned by a specific situation arising out of God’s concern for justice and opposition to evil. We saw this in the reading from Hosea this past Sunday where God proclaims in 1:9 that Israel are not his people, but then in the next verse proclaims that they are the Sons of the living God. God’s wrath has passed because the reason for God’s anger has been overcome. This juxtaposition of the temporary act of Wrath versus the eternal nature of Love is best articulated by Isaiah who writes: “In overflowing wrath for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.” Isa. 26:20.

The Secret of Anger is Care:

The secret of anger is God’s care for his creation. God’s wrath necessarily brings about destruction and distress, but never despair. (Revelation is a great example of this point.) All of us, but particularly the prophets, can see the evil being done in the world. God’s response can either be one of indifference or one of vindication. Think about the Allied bombing of France during World War II. The French suffered destruction and distress but never despaired for they knew the purpose and the end. God’s wrath is experienced as darkness, but the end is always light. “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance.” Micah 7:8-9.

Distasteful to God:

Nowhere in the Scriptures does God seek out someone upon whom to bestow his wrath. Never is God described as taking pleasure in his anger. The example Dr. Heschel uses is a parent’s discipline of a child. That discipline should harm the parent more than the child.  God does not willingly afflict us (Lam. 3:33) and continually asks why we provoke his anger (Jer. 44:8). God’s dream is the end of wrath (Isa. 27:4). God’s wrath is a tragic necessity because God’s wrath is not indifferent to the evils in the world.

Anger as Suspended Love:

One way to view God’s anger is as suspended love, as mercy withheld, as mercy in concealment. God’s anger is the necessary righteous indignation of God arising from his pathos and care for the oppressed. Wrath arises out of God’s love but is experienced as a momentary suspension of that love. There is a time when love and mercy must be suspended because to do otherwise would be an indifference to evil. However, God’s love is never suspended forever, as Jerimiah proclaims: “Behold, I will pluck them up from their land . . . And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again each to his heritage and each to his land.” Jer. 12:14-15.

Anger and Grandeur:

Dr. Heschel’s final point concerning the meaning and mystery of wrath is that we have no sense of spiritual grandeur. He writes that spiritual to us means ethereal, calm, moderate, slight, and imperceptible. We have a soft religiosity that sees God as a doting grandmother who is lovely, tender, and familiar. We think of faith as simply a source of comfort, but not as a readiness for martyrdom.

We see the threats of divine castigation as a lack of moderation and tenderness. But the fault is ours for not realizing the full gravity of human failure regarding God’s demands for justice. The crimes of the world and the oppression of the poor are mere incidents of life for us, whereas they are an affront to God. Therefore, our ethereal idea of God is mutually exclusive to the suffering of others. (Or as John will write: If someone says “I love God” but does not love his brother, he is a liar. 1 John 4:20.) Genuine love and genuine mercy cannot indulge a mere feeling or sentimentality about God.

In the end, the grandeur of God demands justice. It is divine wrath that gives strength to God’s justice. For there are moments when only divine indignation can conquer evil. It is only after mildness and kindness have failed that God’s wrath is proclaimed. It is only in the light of moral judgment (rather than the darkness of irrational passion) that God’s anger arises.

Conclusion:

What Dr. Heschel is telling us is that for us to begin to comprehend the meaning and mystery of God’s wrath, we have to open our eyes to see the world as God (and his prophets) see the world. To proclaim that God is Love means that God cannot be indifferent to the lack of love that human beings perpetrate against each other. God is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and forgiving of iniquity and transgression. Ex. 34:6, Num.14:18. But this very same essential nature of God prohibits him from being indifferent to the evils in the world. It is God’s very love and concern that causes him to temporarily suspend his mercy and his forgiveness.

In commenting on the continued existence of slavery in the new American republic, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” If we, like Jefferson, can see the present evil in our midst, then there is no longer a mystery to the existence of God’s wrath.

Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is Chicken Divan. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!

Save the weak and the orphan; *
defend the humble and needy;
Rescue the weak and the poor; *
deliver them from the power of the wicked.
Arise, O God, and rule the earth, *
for you shall take all nations for your own.

Ps. 82:3-4, 8

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