It is an unpleasant topic until we understand it. Then it makes sense. God wrath is judicial. Think of an old English judge who wears a white wig.
God’s wrath is not like this:
But like this:
This picture of an English judge in full regalia is an (imperfect) representation of God in judgment, showing his protective wrath and love over his people.
The attribute is communicable or “transferrable” to us humans because we are made in his image, but we do not always express wrath as he does! We lose our temper. God is slow and systematic and acts as the Ultimate Judge. We can best express our wrath today in society by the law and courts. On a personal level, we can express our anger by calm reflection on injustice and disciplining ourselves and children according to the standards of righteousness and justice.
Here is a quick definition.
This attribute or perfection of God means that out of his love and justice combined, he judges and punishes consistent and regular law-breaking and destructive sin.
God’s wrath is combined with his love? Really? Of course. He intensely hates sin because it harms his highest creation: You. What kind of society would we live in if the law and law enforcement and judges did not exist? We would descend into chaos and violence, which is the very opposite of love. A distant, uncaring God who did not implement justice would be an unloving God. He established law to protect people, and protection speaks of love. Wrath and love go together.
Justice is also related to the attribute of wrath because he requires righteousness and law-keeping on a social level, so we can have protection and enjoy the liberty to live in peace.
God’s wrath in the Old Testament
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 clunky literalism and human-centered thinking.
Instead, there’s a logic and consistency to it. He gave people moral law outside of the Sinai Covenant (Exod. 19), and he gave laws in the Sinai Covenant. Laws were in place. 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 those things 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 very 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 love 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 systemaaaaaaaatically and methoooooooodically and slooooooooowly gathers the evidence, and after sifting and weighing the evidence, he then renders his verdict,. 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.
However, God is very, very willing to forgive people when they repent and ask for mercy and forgiveness. 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.
Additionally, the word counts in the OT for favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, mercy, and compassion (and their various forms) add up to about 1220 times, the vast majority of which are used of God (his wrath occurs 499). See the First Addendum, below.
For example, 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)
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.
God’s Wrath in the New Testament
God never shows wrath towards his Spirit-filled, blood-bought church as a whole, who lives in the New Covenant. This is not true for the ancient people of his Old Covenant, for he did show wrath at their egregious sins, as a whole.
So a big shift has happened.
The main and most common way that God shows wrath today is by the authorities, both law enforcement and the courtroom – the legal system – when it’s functioning properly. Once again, wrath is connected to law and judgment. If (God forbid) a Christian commits a crime, God’s wrath will fall on him. This can happen when a Christian gets a ticket for speeding, for example. But typically the legal system is for unbelievers, or so we hope.
3 Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath [orgê] to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment [orgê] but also because of conscience. (Rom. 13:3-5)
The next time a police officer gives you a ticket for speeding, tell him, “Thanks for being an agent of God’s wrath. I deserve this ticket.” Nowadays, cameras at intersections might get you a ticket. Call it photographic judgment-wrath. Better still, you (the lawbreaker) are undergoing God’s special love-wrath while you are being fined (Heb. 12:5-11).
So wrath and love are connected and are two sides of the same coin, down here on earth in its current sinful state.
The difference is the law that the people of the Old Covenant lived under, contrasted with the eternal once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ and Pentecost that we live in. We walk in the fullness of the Spirit – or we’re supposed to.
18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. … 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:18, Gal. 5:22-23)
Even still, we need a bigger biblical perspective on the OT and NT.
Remember, the NT is a lot smaller than the OT. In the NT those same words and their various forms about love and forgiveness and mercy appear 673 times, the vast majority of which are also used of God. And yes, God’s people are called to show those positive traits as well. The various words for wrath occur only 42 times when used of God (see the two addenda, below).
Clearly, the God of the entire Bible is more interested in favoring, loving, redeeming, forgiving, saving, and being merciful and compassionate to people than he is in evaluating their sins and rendering his verdict after a careful sifting and weighing of all the evidence
So how does this post help me grow closer to God?
That study was not so hard, after all. I didn’t feel emotionally warm while doing it, but it was necessary. I’m glad I did it because I learned a lot.
Here’s a simple formula to summarize this brief study:
Judgment and punishment against injustice and evil = divine wrath
However, God is more than a judge.
He is love (1 John 4:8, 16)
As noted, before he created the heavens and the earth and perfect humans (who fell and continued to do wrong and break the law for centuries), 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 his wrath on it (i.e. judge and punish it).
On the cross, Jesus took our deserved, earned, and merited wrath. And now he shows and showers us with God’s love and grace, which for our part is undeserved, unearned, and unmerited.
Therefore God does not think of you with anger in his heart. Thanks to Jesus, you do not have a deficit or are in a hole, with shackles on your legs. He lifts you out of it and takes them off so you can begin again, in and with him. He thinks about you with love in his heart.
Written by James Malcolm
RELATED (offsite at my older website)
These posts, written by me, have more biblical data in them:
These posts, also written by me, are the first versions and have even more biblical data in them:
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES ‘DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?’
Do I Really Know God? He Shows Wrath
First Addendum: Word Studies in the Old Testament
The goal here is to show that wrath was more prominent and frequent after the law was given in Exod. 20, confirming Paul’s insight that the “law brings wrath” (Rom. 4:15).
1. Ap: 207: before the law was it is not used of God except in Exod. 4:14, when the anger of the Lord burned against Moses – the lawgiver – and in 15:7, when the blast of God’s nostril (anger) threw the Egyptian army into the sea.
Of the 207 times, the word appears, meaning wrath or anger (not nostrils, etc.), 167 times it refers to God, after the law was given, except Exod. 4:14 and 15:7, as noted.
167 of 207
155 of 167 against his covenant people
1 of 155 on his chosen vessel, Moses, before the law was given
2. Za’am (both verb and noun): 28: it is not used of God before the law was given; it is appears 27 times for God’s wrath after the law was given.
27 of 28
18 of 27 against his covenant people
3. Ḥēmah: 110: before the law was given, it does not appear for God’s wrath. After the law was given, it appears about 88 times for the wrath of God.
88 of 110
78 of 88: against his covenant people
4. Ḥārah: 92: it appears that many times for anger, fury, and sometimes burned, as in the anger of the Lord burned. But I did not count fret. It appears about 48 times for the wrath of God. It is used potentially of God’s anger through angels against Abraham (Gen. 18:30, 32), though God did not actually get angry. It also appears in Exod. 4:14: the anger of the Lord burned against Moses. Except for those 3 times, it appears only after the law was given.
46 of 48: against his covenant people
2 of 26 potentially on Abraham, God’s friend, but the wrath never actualized or happened
5. Ḥārȏn: 39: it is used 39 times of God. It appears in Exod. 15:7, in Miriam’s song, for God’s burning anger. All other times it appears after the law was given.
39 of 40: once in Exod. 15:7, on the Egyptians
33 of 39: against his covenant people
6. Ḥorî: 6: it is used 2 times of God, after the law was given.
2 of 6
2 of 2 against his covenant people
7. Ka’as (verb): 54: it is used 40 times of God’s anger and always after the law was given.
40 of 54
40 of 40 against his covenant people
8. Ka’as (noun): 15: sometimes this is translated as grief or sorrow, but those verses were omitted from the total count. It is used 5 times about God, and all of these verses come after the law was given.
5 of 15
5 of 5 against his covenant people
9. ‘ābar (denominative verb): 8: 5 of these words are used of God, and all occur after the law was given.
5 of 8
5 of 5 against his covenant people
10. ‘ebrah: 31: 24 are used of God, and all of them appear after the law was given
24 of 31
17 of 24 against his covenant people
11. Qin’ah: 4: this word is usually translated in the NIV as jealousy, but 4 times it refers to God’s jealous anger, and all occur after the law was given.
4 of 4
4 of 4 against his covenant people
12. Qātzap: 34: it is used of God 25 times, and all the verses appear after the law was given.
25 of 34
23 of 25 against his covenant people
13. Qetzep: 28: it is used of God 27 times, and all occur after the law was given
27 of 28
25 of 27 against his covenant people
14. Rāgaz; rōgez: 2: both are used of God and come after the law was given.
2 of 2
2 of 2: against his covenant people
These totals are close approximations.
Interpreting the data
The words wrath, anger, fury and their synonyms appear 658 times, whether about God or humans.
Of the 658, God shows wrath 499 times.
So humans have wrath or anger 159 times.
Of the 499, God shows his wrath against his people 448 times after the Law of Moses was thundered down.
On his chosen people before the law and covenant: 3 times. Of those three, Abraham did not actually experience it because God through his angels accepted his questions. So it was used only once, against Moses, the lawgiver.
God shows wrath against individuals outside of his covenant (pagans). The key Hebrew words appeared only once before the law was given – against the Egyptian army. But after the law was given, the bulk of the occurrences of the Hebrew words are in national contexts: God’s wrath and anger are to be poured out on nations that crushed Israel, like Assyria and Babylon. Isaiah took care to speak those prophesies.
After the law was given, God’s wrath on people outside of the covenant (pagans), whether national or individualistic, works out to be 51 times.
Here are the totals for the key Hebrew words:
God’s wrath: 499
God’s wrath after the law: 495
God’s wrath against the covenant people: 448
God’s wrath against his chosen people before the law and covenant: 1 (and potentially 2 more times)
God’s wrath on people outside the covenant (pagans) before the law: 1
God’s wrath on people outside the covenant (pagans) after the law: 51
God’s wrath before the law, either on his chosen people or pagans: 4 (or 2)
Percentage against his covenant people after the law: 90%
Percentage against people outside the covenant (pagans) after the law: 10%
The low number against pagans is startling because it seems that God would direct his wrath towards them more often than against his chosen or covenant people.
Also, one would expect the law to guide his covenant people towards righteousness, so God would not have to show his wrath on their unrighteousness. Just the opposite happened. His wrath intensified after the law because their sin increased. Recall that Paul argues that the holy law stimulates sin in unholy humans (Rom. 3:20, 7:15-13); sin must be justly punished (wrath); so “the law brings wrath.”
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.
Second Addendum: Wrath in the New Testament
Remember, in this study we’re talking about God’s wrath, not ours; yes, the Bible speaks about human anger and sometimes favorably (Eph. 4:26). Jesus is included in this study, since he represents God, and in two instances Peter and Paul represent God too, in their special callings.
Definitions and Word Counts
Orgê (noun, 29 times): the g or gamma in Greek is hard, like ego, and the e with the accent over it is pronounced like the vowel sound in eight; this noun is the most common and the standard word for anger or wrath.
Orgizô (verb, 3 times): it is related to orgê and means to become or get or be angry. The accent over the o means it is the long o or the “omega.”
Aganakteô (verb, 1 time): this means to be or become indignant. I see this verb as meaningbeing personally upset and opposing wrong and meanness, usually against people who should know better. Their mean behavior was unexpected and unworthy of them.
Thumos (noun, 8 times): this is often used of humans in very strong, often bad sense; it is used of God only as a synonym for orgê very few times or in the Revelation. A few times the NIV translates it as fury in Revelation.
Prosochthizô (verb, 2 times): this is to provoke or be provoked to anger
Grand Total: 42 times, used of God