In that day you will sing: “I will praise you, O LORD! You were angry with me, but your anger keeps turning away, and instead you encourage me.
Isaiah 12:1 (author’s translation)
As an Old Testament teacher, I am asked over and over again, it seems, about the wrath of God in the Old Testament. I am asked often enough that I have to keep from becoming exasperated. I know it is a sincere question, and I know it is motivated by a lot of Old Testament data. At the same time, I have the feeling that it springs from a pretty shallow reading of the text. It seems to me that a reading of the Old Testament text with an eye to what is really being said goes far toward answering the question.
To put the answer in a nutshell, it is this: God gets angry, but he is love. John’s affirmation: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8) is merely capturing what the Old Testament makes very clear. Think about this: in about 1400 BC the Hebrew people swore in blood to keep their loving Deliverer’s simple covenantal expectations: don’t worship other gods and don’t infringe on other people’s God-given prerogatives. They immediately broke this covenant and then continued to break it for another 1000 years, all the time blaming God for not blessing them! What is God supposed to do? Say, “tut, tut”? Would you get angry with people like that? Of course, you would!
So what did God do? He forgave them, and forgave them, and forgave them, and forgave them! And when their sin had finally mounted so high that the land spit them out into captivity, did God wipe his hands of them? No, he took them back to himself, looking forward to the blood of Christ.
Is that a God of wrath? No, he is a God of love. So the Psalmist cries out, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his unfailing love endures forever”(Ps 106:1 NLT). In another place he says, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime! Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5 NLT).
So is there a lot of divine anger in the Old Testament? Yes, about a thousand years’ worth. But that is not surprising. What is surprising is the ten thousand times ten thousand years’ of unfailing love that perseveres through and beyond that anger.