The Wrath of God in the Old Testament

What’s with all the wrathin’ and a-smitin’ in the Old Testament?

I’m a believer in the radical grace of God. But if Grace Revolutionaries don’t explore this topic, some people may accuse them of hiding unpleasant truths and focusing on feel-good, sugarcoated doctrines alone.

This post reduces the longer one offsite, here, which includes Hebrew word studies.

If readers would like to see the verses in various translations, they may go to biblegateway.com and type in the references.

Also, see this interview in Christianity Today about godly anger v. sinful anger. Very good.

Let’s get started.

Introduction

“Lack of wrath against wickedness is a lack of caring, which is a lack of love” (p. 23 or 160).

Down here on earth as it is now in its sinful state, you can’t have love without anger against evil and injustice.

Nonetheless, in Rom. 4:15, Paul has a profound insight that is often overlooked because it is so brief and tucked away in numerous other profound truths: “the law brings wrath”; in that verse the law is the Torah or Law of Moses.

One way to check out his insight is to consider that the law was thundered from on high on Mt. Sinai, beginning in Exodus 19. God shows wrath on is own people, after the law was given, when they violated it.

I intend to explore this thesis:

The law brings wrath.”

This insight is tied to the Old Covenant, for law and covenant go together in the OT. Two parties, God and man, entered into an agreement or covenant. The lesser party (humankind) must fulfill certain obligations; the law guides people as to how to carry out their agreement, and the law promises benefits for upholding the covenant (Deut. 28). God, the major party, benefits his people. But when one party (people) breaks it in bad faith over centuries, the aggrieved party (God) has the right to take action against the covenant breakers and lawbreakers. They can even be punished. That action and punishment is called wrath in the OT. We could call it judicial (legal) or covenant wrath against lawbreakers or covenant breakers.

Before and after Exodus 19

Here is the key chapter: Exodus 19. It tells the story of God thundering the law down to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

The key question: how does the wrath of God appear before and after that chapter?

Genesis

Let’s begin in Genesis.

God’s wrath in action can be seen, for example, in Adam and Eve’s punishments (Gen. 3); in the flood (though the text speaks specifically of grief that motivated God); on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19); and the ten plagues on the Egyptians (Exod. 7:14-11:19; cf. Ps. 78:49). This all happened to pagans.

However, it must be said that God’s chosen people in those examples were spared from wrath, except Adam and Eve. Noah and his family were saved in the ark; Lot and his family were rescued from the two cities; the ten plagues were not intended for the Israelites. Thus, they were spared his wrath, even though they were not sinless and morally perfect, before the Law of Moses was given.

Therefore, God favored his chosen people or merely corrected them before Exod. 19, while pagans were punished severely when they broke the moral law or sinned in some way. This is wrath without explicitly saying the key words.

Now let’s see what happens in Genesis, after the creation story and the flood.

Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob committed recorded sins, but they did not explicitly suffer wrath. Abraham lied to the Pharaoh, but God inflicted disease on the Pharaoh, not on Abraham. God spared his chosen man, but not pagans. God restored them, however (Gen. 12:10-20).

Abraham and Sarah laughed at the promise of God that they would have a son, but they were only rebuked, not punished. They still had Isaac (Gen. 17:15-22, Gen. 18:10-15, Gen. 21:1-6).

Further, Jacob stole Esau’s birthright (Gen. 27), but he was still blessed with revelations (Gen. 28:10-21). He wrestled with an angel and got a name (character) change, but this is not explicitly stated as the wrath of God (Gen. 32:22-32). He and Esau reconciled, and Jacob got to carry on with the birthright privileges (Gen. 33 and Gen. 49). One could say that God favored them because they were his chosen people and he had a bigger plan. But it’s not as if they got off scot free. They were corrected or rebuked in some way, but never do the key words for wrath appear, while they are used freely after the law on Mt. Sinai.

The rest of the Torah

The Torah is the first five books of the Bible.

Let’s turn our attention to Exodus before the law was given in Exod. 19 and the corresponding passages in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy after the law.

In a side-by-side comparison the differences in punishments are remarkable.

Water and thirst

In Exod. 15:22-27, before the law in Exod. 19, the children of Israel are out in the desert. They found no water, and the water they eventually discovered at Marah was bitter. They complained. God performed a miracle without wrath explicitly stated. In Exod. 17:1-7, they camped at Rephidim, still in the desert, and could not find water. They complained again, but God’s wrath is not stated. Instead, Moses struck the rock, and water came out.

In contrast, in Num. 20:1-13, after the law was given, the Israelites complained about not having water, and this time God told Moses to speak to the rock, and water would gush out. Instead, Moses disobeyed and struck the rock. Though “wrath” is not explicitly stated in Num. 20:1-13, Ps. 106:32 says, “By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them.” God judged Moses, so the lawgiver was not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land (cf. Num. 20:24, Num. 27:14; Deut. 32:51).

Food and hunger

In Exod. 16, before the law, the Israelites grumbled about not having food, so God provided them with manna and quail. But nowhere does the text say that God poured out his wrath on them for their sin of complaining.

In contrast, in Num. 11:4-35, after the law was given, the people complained about having nothing but manna. God became “exceedingly angry,” but provided them with quail, anyway. He also judged them with a plague because they apparently ate it raw. An image of a riot is possible. This severe punishment is wrath.

Num. 21:4-9 further combines complaining about food and water. God sends snakes to bite them. Though the keywords are not mentioned, the snakes are a severe punishment, and that’s the same as wrath.

Working on the Sabbath

In Exod. 16:23-30, before the law, Moses told the people not to gather the manna on the seventh day, the Sabbath, because that is day is holy. But they disobeyed and gathered it anyway. Moses rebuked them, and they did it right the next time. No wrath is stated, and no one died.

However, in Exod. 20:8, after the law, God commanded the people to keep the Sabbath (the fourth commandment). He further orders that if they don’t keep it, they shall be executed. In Num. 15:32-36, they actually put a Sabbath breaker to death.

Idolatry

As soon as the Ten Commandments were given, the second of which says not to form or make idols, the people, led by Aaron, made the golden calf (Exod. 32).

They made no calf or another image before then.

In Exod. 32, God would have destroyed all of them (v. 19), but instead only 3,000 were killed because Moses intervened (v. 28). Maybe it was passages like these that inspired Paul to note that the law stimulates sin (Rom. 7:7-13). (Incidentally, about 3,000 got saved at Pentecost [Acts 2:41]).

Conclusion so far

All of this leads to the conclusion that wrath before the law is not as heavily emphasized as it was afterwards. Even the flood was motivated by divine grief, and Sodom and Gomorrah could have been spared if ten righteous had been found. Also, these passages are about punishments on pagans. This is unlike the wrath poured out on God’s covenant people, which is heavily emphasized and widespread after the law, while, surprisingly, the pagans did not bear the brunt of it very much after the law. They were not held to such a high standard.

Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he finishes Rom. 4:15: “where there is no law [of Moses] there is no transgression” against the Mosaic Law that had not yet been given. He also wrote: “in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). Accountability and punishment before the law was not as stringent and severe as it was after the law.

Thus, the thesis—“the law brings wrath”—and is confirmed.

What Wrath Is and Is Not

We are now in a better position to interpret the wrath of God in the entire sweep of the OT.

Paul’s insight goes deeper than just a raw data word count or these stories.

Paul says in Romans there is something flawed with the mixture of religious law (which is holy), covenant (a beneficial relationship), and unholy human nature (the fatal flaw). Law stimulates sin in sinful human beings (Rom. 7:7-13). With the law, people become conscious of sin (3:20). This law-sin connection is also tied to the covenant, which involves two parties, God and man. Humankind breaks its end of the agreement; therefore the aggrieved party, God, has the right to take action and correct the covenant breakers. That action and correction is called wrath.

That’s the first half of Paul’s great insight (and even more on that, below). The second half is discussed in the Conclusion, below.

Moreover, God expressing wrath is not like a human losing his temper. God does not flash with anger and throw an unsuspecting, nearby angel across the universe before God can think straight. “Sorry, I lost my temper! I reacted without thinking!” No, he does not lash out. This is crude literalism and human-centered thinking. Instead, there’s a logic and consistency to it. Laws were in place. The people violated them. They had to suffer the consequences, sometimes quickly when major and sacred transitions were happening in Israel’s long history (2 Sam 6:3-7; cf. Exod. 25:12-15; Num. 4:5-6, 17; and 2 Kings 2:23-25; cf. Lev. 26:21-22), but mostly they underwent wrath only after centuries of lawbreaking. Punishment for lawbreaking is called the wrath of God – his judicial or covenant wrath.

God would not be the God of justice if he let wrongs slide by undealt with, just like a parent would be derelict if she let her children get away with everything. Her giving them a timeout or even a spanking without losing her temper is a (weak) equivalent to God’s perfect, unmistakable, error-free wrath.

God’s wrath is never mysterious, irrational, malicious, spiteful, or vindictive. It is predictable because it is aroused by injustice, lawbreaking, and evil – and that alone.

This is why he shows wrath, to punish wrong and evil:

The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;

the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. (Nah. 1:3)

I will discipline you but only with justice;

I will not let you go entirely unpunished. (Jer. 30:11)

Bigger Historical and Biblical Perspective

We must look at God’s wrath in the larger historical and biblical perspective.

As noted, covenant is tied to law and justice in the OT. Two parties voluntarily entered into an agreement. The privileged partner (God) promised to keep them safe and bless their agricultural life, their resources. He also instituted the priesthood to teach them how to keep the law, and he set up the sacrificial system administered by the priests for when the people sinned. The righteous party (God) forgave their sins over and over again, for centuries. He sent prophets to warn them and remind them of their agreement.

But sometimes the human party to the covenant went so far in their bad faith, they broke the law so egregiously for centuries, the aggrieved party (God) took action. He judged and punished them, but not in his full wrath and not to destroy them. And after this painful judicial process – painful to him – he still forgave and loved them. He was merciful to his chosen lawbreakers. This is the perfect blend of mercy and justice. This is the story of God’s wrath in the OT, in a nutshell.

Thus, God’s wrath is linked to his judgment over a long history. He is like an old English judge in his red robe, white collar, ribbon tie, and white wig. He systemaaaaaaaatically and methoooooooodically and slooooooooowly gathers the evidence and then renders his verdict, after sifting and weighing the evidence. What kind of human judge would it be if he simply let the guilty go without paying a fine or spending time in prison? God instituted justice – including punishment against lawbreakers – down here on earth because it reflects his just character.

Further, while it is true that the Hebrew words for wrath appeared 448 times against the people of the covenant, this verse is repeated again and again in the OT:

But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Ps. 86:15; cf. Exod. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps 103:4; Ps. 145:8; Joel 2:12; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3)

Though those verses do not appear as often as wrath does, they are a pound of gold compared to one hundred pounds of iron.

And these verses talk about God’s mercy and forgiveness and his restraining his anger against his disobedient, law-breaking people:

Yet he was merciful;

he forgave their iniquities

and did not destroy them.

Time after time he restrained his anger

and did not stir up his full wrath.

He remembered that they were but flesh,

a passing breeze that does not return. (Ps. 78:38-39)

Most importantly, the word counts for favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and compassion (and their various forms) add up to about 1220 times, the vast majority of which are used of God after the law was given, and, indeed, throughout the entire OT. That’s well over twice the number of times the occurrences (499) of wrath and anger and fury (and so on) used of God at any time or against anyone, chosen or covenant people or pagan, in the OT.

Therefore, wrath is not central or fundamental to God’s character. God is more than a judge.

He is love.

Wrath is a response to something outside of himself in the world; his love always is. Before he created the heavens and the earth and perfect humans who fell and continue to do wrong, he was always love in eternity past. And he will always be love in eternity future, in a new heaven and new earth, when evil has been wiped out, and he no longer must pour out his wrath on it (i.e. punish it).

That’s the more accurate biblical picture that must be taken into account.

Conclusion

Paul’s great insight says the law, covenant, and humans are a toxic mixture. The holy law stimulates sin in sinful humans who persistently break the covenant (Rom. 7:7-13); sin must be justly punished (wrath); so “the law brings wrath” (Rom. 4:15).

The goal (among several) of Romans is to teach us how to avoid the wrath to come. The way out is through the gospel by faith in Christ. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17).

Then we are set free from God’s wrath. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom. 5:9). Paul carries forward into the New Covenant the themes – no, the reality – of favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and compassion, which he observed in the Old.

Paul’s solution is for his fellow Jews to come out from under the Law of Moses, and certainly not to make Gentiles submit to it as the Judaizers advocated, a law which is part and parcel of the Old Covenant; instead, all peoples, Jew and Gentile, should come to faith in Christ and walk in the Spirit within the New Covenant, which Christ paid for and ratified with his blood.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. … The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:18, Gal. 5:22-23)

On the cross, Jesus Christ took our earned, merited, and deserved wrath. Now he gives us God’s love and grace, which for our part is unearned, unmerited, and undeserved.

For More Study

This article has a companion piece: The Wrath of God in the New Testament. It concludes that God never shows wrath against his blood-washed, Spirit-filled church as a whole. However, an individual Christian who (God forbid) commits a crime and is arrested by the authorities, who are agents of God’s wrath (Rom. 13:1-5) – well, that’s another matter. Click on the link, above, to read more.

One distinctive point between the Old and New Testaments on wrath: In the Old God showed wrath against his Old Covenant community. In the New he never shows it against his New Covenant community.

The Wrath of God as an Aspect of God’s Love

That article teaches us how shallow it is to criticize justice and punishment (wrath) for wrongdoing. God’s justice and love and wrath are linked. But his love is fundamental in a way that wrath is not. I used that article for some of the ideas in the section, What Wrath Is and Is Not.

Wrath of God

That link gives a brief overview of the topic.

As noted, see this interview in Christianity Today about godly anger v. sinful anger.

Gods Plan of Salvation

That article explains in more depth how we personally may escape God’s wrath through the one and only way of salvation that He provided in Jesus Christ.

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