How do we balance God’s wrath with His love?
The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The LORD takes vengeance on his foes
and vents his wrath against his enemies. …
Who can withstand his indignation?
Who can endure his fierce anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire;
the rocks are shattered before him.Nahum 1:2, 6
In these verses from the Book of Nahum the prophet Nahum writes that God takes “vengeance” and “pours out” his wrath upon His enemies. In this case, the enemy in question is Nineveh, a city that God had shown mercy to when He sent Jonah (that Nineveh ever repented at all is quite miraculous, but their repentance did not last). As the capital of Assyria, Ninevah was essentially the beating heart of one of the most brutal regimes known to history. They were, shall we say, creative in their brutality, which is never a good thing. But now, approximately 150 years after Jonah, Nineveh has gone back to its old ways.
Some of the language Nahum uses may be extreme to our modern ears. It is important, though, to hear this through the ears of ancient Israel, who had been conquered and ravaged by the oppressive, destructive, murderous juggernaut known as Assyria. “The graphic descriptions of shields dripping blood and war chariots careening through the streets (2:3-4),” writes Old Testament scholar Victor H. Matthews, “must have been pleasing to the people of Judah, who had suffered greatly at the hands of the rampaging Assyrian armies.” Israel, Matthews explains, “believes that a just God never leaves the guilty unpunished.”
But God does not just punish others like some tribalistic, genocidal, xenophobic maniac. Sometimes He uses other armies to judge even His own people, Israel. As a matter of fact, God uses the brutal Assyrians to first judge Israel because of the extreme nature of the Israelite’s wickedness (God would later judge Assyria for the extreme violence of their actions to overtake and occupy Israel starting in 740 BC and their attack of Jerusalem in Judah in 701 BC; see Isaiah 10:5-34). While the Southern Kingdom of Judah was, compared to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, somewhat less vile in their sin, they too would fall under enemy occupation and be sent into exile by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
Many reasons why Judah fell could be listed here, but to take but one example, consider Jeremiah’s warning to Zedekiah—the last king of Judah—in Jeremiah 34. Jeremiah warned that God was well aware that the people in Jerusalem were not following the Law regarding Hebrew slaves—namely, that they must be freed from their service every 7 years. The people had initially heeded a warning from the Lord and released their slaves, but since then “you have turned around and profaned [the Lord’s] Name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished” (Jeremiah 34:16). So, in return, God says to these wicked slave masters, “So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you … ‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague, and famine” (34:17). As we see here and will see elsewhere, the Lord is truly both “jealous and avenging” but also “slow to anger” (1:2, 3). He is often slower to anger than He is quick to avenge, but sometimes He judges those who know better with a bit more haste, in order to bring them back to Himself. This is why, commenting on Zechariah 1:3—“Return to me … and I will return to you”—and other similar verses, fourth-century Christian theologian John Chrysostom wrote,
God always seems to be severe to the righteous but good to sinners and quick to clemency. He restores the one who sinned and fell and tells him, “Shall not he who falls arise; or he that turns away, shall he not turn back again?” … O such strictness toward the righteous! O such abundant forgiveness toward the sinner! [God] finds so many different means, without himself changing, to keep the righteous in check and forgive the sinner, by usefully dividing his rich goodness.
When God does avenge, however, He also seeks to show mercy and tends to prefer that. In Exodus 20:6, note how his punishment lasts for three to four generations while his mercy lasts “a thousand generations.”
One other person’s struggle with wrath is worth quoting in length. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf in his book, Free of Charge, writes about the reality of depravity in the world and God’s necessary response to it:
I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.
God is wrathful toward evil. His judgment brings His wrath. To face unspeakable suffering is to see the love behind God’s protective wrath. Lawyer, former gymnast, and abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander often discusses the good news of God’s wrath based on her experience. Denhollander was the first woman to bring the public’s attention to the sexual abuse perpetrated upon gymnasts by Larry Nassar, a Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor. In her victim impact statement to Nassar during the trial, she said, “The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing.” God cared about what had been done to Denhollander and the other women Nassar abused. Wrath was the loving response by a God who hates to see His creation harmed. Mercy is wonderful, and it is the only reason we can be saved, but we must also truly admit that judgment is deserved, and that we want a God who displays His wrath against humankind’s variety of atrocities: slavery, sexual abuse, child sacrifice, and the many more ways we have turned against God. Indifference to evil and suffering simply is not an attribute of the Old Testament God.
Eugene Peterson explains that “judgment is not a word about things, describing them; it is a word that does things, putting love in motion, applying mercy, nullifying wrong, ordering goodness.” In other words, it is not arbitrary, but thought out, considered, measured, and redemptive.
In their book But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger, scholars Kevin Kinghorn and Stephen Travis uncover the easy-to-miss truth that behind God’s wrath is God’s fierce love. “God is not like a judge in a courthouse suspending his personal feelings in order to act objectively,” they write. Rather, “He is more like a parent who feels affronted when her daughter is bullied in school and who takes steps to confront the offender.” They find that God’s anger is motivated by three concerns: the faithfulness of His people, the flourishing of His people, and His people “serv[ing] as instruments to bring life to others.” When any of these things is impeded in the Old Testament, either by enemies of His people or by the self-destructive actions of His people, God’s wrath remedies the situation. But, the authors point out, “God’s wrath is always a last resort.” His wrath is not intended as a final definitive statement and is averted when repentance takes place. Ultimately,
God’s wrath thus serves as a kind of marker of certain truths about people: truths about their failure to love God and others, truths about their selfishness, truths about their indifference to the plight of their neighbor, and so on.
God’s wrath, then, is a result of our lack of love toward each other. It is a statement about who we are and what we are doing to one another. Ultimately God asks us to look to Him in worship because when we don’t, we lose the foundation of love for one another and fall into failure again. But when we do come to that, God’s wrath eventually shows itself to us: “Our experience of God’s wrath toward us is God pressing on us the truth about ourselves.” True repentance, though, is our way of unwrapping that wrath and finding God’s heart within it. As Khaled Anatolios beautifully explains, “The very notion of divine wrath itself becomes transformed. The perfect penitent is not someone who merely ‘endures’ divine wrath but someone who rather receives it and internalizes it as precisely a rejection of sin that is enveloped within God’s love for the sinner.” Indeed, God’s love envelopes the sinner even in His for repentance, for as God says,
Even now—this is the Lord’s declaration—turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Tear your hearts, not just your clothes, and return to the Lord your God. For he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and he relents from sending disaster.Joel 2:12-14 CSB
All articles in this series:
Old Testament Violence | Part 1 Introduction
God’s Judgment | Old Testament Violence, Part 2
God’s Jealousy | Old Testament Violence, Part 3
God’s Wrath | Old Testament Violence, Part 4
God’s Hatred | Old Testament Violence, Part 5
The Fear of God | Old Testament Violence, Part 6
Warfare in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 7
Did God Destroy the Canaanites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 8
Did God Destroy the Amalekites? | Old Testament Violence, Part 9
Plague on the Firstborn | Old Testament Violence, Part 10
The Flood | Old Testament Violence, Part 11
Understanding Old Testament Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 12
Death Penalty in the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 13
Women and the Law | Old Testament Violence, Part 14
Slavery in Ancient Israel | Old Testament Violence, Part 15
To His Way of Loving | Old Testament Violence, Part 16
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Image: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), “Planet,” 1866.
 Victor H. Matthews, The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 129.
 Ibid., 129.
 John Chrysostom, On Repentance and Almsgiving 7.5. See notes to Zechariah 1 in Ancient Faith Study Bible: Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2019), 4473.
 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 138.
 She continues, “And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found.” CNN, “Read Rachael Denhollander’s full victim impact statement about Larry Nassar,” January 30, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/24/us/rachael-denhollander-full-statement/index.html.
 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 55. Emphasis original.
 Kevin Kinghorn with Stephen Travis, But What About God’s Wrath: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 5.
 Ibid., 11.
 Ibid., 82.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., 92.
 Khaled Anatolios, Deification Through the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 602, Kindle.