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Fall 1987    Vol. 16 No. 2    pp. 55–61 

The Wrath of Yahweh

Katrina Poetker

The “wrath of God” sounds like a contradiction of terms to my modern ears. Is God not “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin?” But the verse continues, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

. . . God cares enough for humankind to be wrathful . . .

Throughout the Old Testament, and even in the New Testament, anger is attributed to God. Is this just a primitive understanding of the nature of Yahweh? Has our faith developed so that the wrath of God is no longer a reality; that his love encompasses all? The dearth of literature on this subject would suggest that much contemporary Christian scholarship assumes this to be the case.

HEBREW LANGUAGE OF WRATH

A study of the Biblical language for anger or wrath reveals the frequency of its appearance in the Old Testament with reference to God. It is clear that the wrath of Yahweh was a common conception of one of the ways in which Yahweh dealt {56} with humankind. His wrath is provoked and turned away. It kindles and burns hot. It is slow to come but fierce and fearful. In addition to the terms used for wrath, God’s wrath is often suggested through expressions and metaphors from the vocabulary of flood, famine, conflagration, cursing, devouring, reaping, demolishing, slaughtering, refining, and military siege and battle (Dahlberg 904).

ISRAELITE CONCEPTIONS OF THE WRATH OF YAHWEH

How does the Old Testament speak of the wrath of Yahweh? Although there has been little contemporary research on the wrath of Yahweh, the Old Testament evidence of it is multitudinous. Did the Israelites’ understanding change and develop as their experience of Yahweh grew? I feel that there is development in their understanding. But his wrath does not ultimately become an impersonal force. There is a continuing personal aspect of the wrath of Yahweh throughout the Old Testament. Four aspects of this can be traced.

The Unpredictable

Anthony Hanson argues that the earliest conception of Yahweh’s wrath contained an unpredictable element. He suggests that the oldest passages of the Old Testament in which the wrath of God is expressed are 2 Samuel 6:7-8, where Uzzah is killed for touching the ark, and 2 Samuel 24:1, where God in anger moved David to number Israel and Judah. Here divine wrath does not seem to be connected to either justice or morality (Hanson 1-3). Other references which relate this fearful and incomprehensible nature of God’s anger are Exodus 19:22 and Numbers 22:22.

Wrath appears here as the direct action of Yahweh against those who have offended him. More conservative scholars do see, even in these passages, an ethical basis for God’s anger (Brouse 91).

The Predictable

Throughout most of the Old Testament, the wrath of Yahweh seems to be placed within the context of his covenant with Israel. An example of this is Deuteronomy 32 where Yahweh recalls his acts towards his people. Their lack of response and sin is in direct contrast to his relationship with {57} them and the historical events through which he has saved them. The divine wrath is Yahweh’s reaction against his own people, with whom he had personal dealings.

In Deuteronomy the wrath of Yahweh is morally and rationally understood. It is the personal reaction of Yahweh to sin, particularly sins like idolatry. It is predictable in the sense that it can be expected in response to Israel’s unfaithfulness and disobedience, both at a personal and collective level. It is conceived and expressed within the context of covenant.

Here the wrath of Yahweh can be understood as divine retributive justice, the fulfilment of his promises of the covenant. It was inherent within the covenant that Yahweh would punish Israel for disobedience to their agreement, as is clear in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. The curses listed in this passage correspond to the agents of Yahweh’s wrath throughout the Old Testament.

It is also in the context of covenant that God’s wrath is turned aside. People are frequently found in the Old Testament turning Yahweh’s wrath. Moses argued with God not to destroy Israel (Exodus 32:9-14). It is this interaction between Yahweh and his people that is characteristic of him in the Old Testament. As a result, Yahweh’s wrath is most often understood as disciplinary in nature. Thus, the entire context of covenant was framed in such a way that the discipline of Yahweh was meant to draw Israel back to repentance, faithfulness, and a whole relationship to Him.

What are the agents or instruments of this wrath of Yahweh? There are a variety of natural and historical catastrophes which reveal Yahweh’s wrath. Sickness and famine are expressions of divine wrath (Num. 11:33; Deut. 28:20-24; 58-61; 2 Sam. 24:15-18; Ps. 88:16; 90:5-8). The natural elements can be agents (Gen. 6:17; 19:24; Ps. 104:4; Isa. 30:30; Jer. 21:14; Joel 1). Various calamities are attributed to Yahweh’s wrath (Amos 3:6; 4:6-13; Isa. 9:8-10:4). Even personal affliction can be the effect of his anger (2 Sam. 12:15-18; Job 14; Ps. 88:16). He uses human instruments as well as natural forces (Isaiah 10:5). One frequent manifestation of divine wrath is defeat in battle. The nations are often seen as agents of the divine wrath as in Isaiah 10:5: “Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!”

It is important to note here that the Old Testament does not see every calamity or human trouble as a manifestation of {58} divine anger. Eichrodt points out that Israel did not develop a systematic understanding of Yahweh’s wrath which made every misfortune a punishment for sin (Eichrodt 260). There was the existence of unexplained evil (2 Samuel 11:25). There was not a one to one correlation between calamity or suffering and Yahweh’s wrath.

Eichrodt also contributes the observation that at this time the divine wrath is understood as being transitory in nature, operating in individual acts of punishment (266). Whereas Yahweh’s love and righteousness are permanent, his wrath is a change in his attitude caused by man’s behavior (Isa. 54:7,8). There was no understanding at this point that Israel was living under the permanent wrath of God. Through the prophetic preaching however, this understanding slowly changed (Eichrodt 267).

The Experience

The fall of Jerusalem and the exile can be seen as Israel’s and Judah’s ultimate experiences of the wrath of Yahweh (2 Chron. 36:17-21; Ps. 106:40-41; Lam. 2; Zech. 7:11-14). This is expressed by the prophets Amos and Hosea, who were prophesying before the fall of Samaria, when the Israelites were taken to Assyria (Amos 2:6-3:15; Hosea 13). The exile is clearly an expression of Yahweh’s wrath as punishment for her unfaithfulness and immoral behavior.

Isaiah, Joel and Micah direct their prophecies primarily to Judah, the southern kingdom before she was taken into exile around 600 B.C. They write warning the people of the coming wrath, calling the people to repentance. Jeremiah, Habakkuk and Zephaniah wrote at the time of the fall and during the exile; Haggai, Zephaniah and Malachi at the time of return (Eerdmans 374-376).

These prophetic books show that the wrath of Yahweh is also directed against the nations, both for their actions against Israel and also for their own immoral and unjust behavior. At the same time, in exilic and post-exilic periods, the mercy of God came to play a larger role in the writings of the Old Testament.

The wrath of Yahweh is seen here as a personal attribute, not separated from his character and activity. The prophetic conception of wrath as Yahweh’s personal reaction to sin, now also expressed against the Gentiles, is accepted and emphasized {59} by the later apocalyptic writers of the Old Testament. They add an eschatological content to it which was not there before.

The Future

An apocalyptic understanding of the divine wrath emerges within the Old Testament writings. Here, although the wrath can be experienced at any time, the prophets increasingly associate it with the coming Day of the Lord. This will be a day of judgement and vengeance (Isa. 2:10-22; Jer. 30; Joel 3:12). Yahweh’s wrath is supremely manifested against the Gentiles and faithless Jews on the last day. The later psalmists see this wrath coming against the heathen as well as unfaithful Jews, but they expect that their own piety will preserve them from it (Ps. 7:6-8; 56:7,9; 79:5-13; 94:1,2,12-15). However even the righteous express anxiety about the coming day of wrath (Ps. 139:1-12; 19-24; Dan. 9:3-19; 12:8; Mal. 4:5-6).

Eichrodt states that, “from being a temporary misfortune, the wrath of God became an inescapable eschatological doom” (267). Wrath then becomes a more permanent reality. The Day of the Lord becomes a day of wrath. This day is also understood as an entrance into a new existence. The apocalyptic view is more prevalent in situations of oppression, such as during the exile.

Summary

In summary then, the wrath of Yahweh appears in the Old Testament as part of his character and his response to human behavior. In a few situations, those characterized as older writings by some authors, there seems to be an element of unpredictability in the expression of his wrath. Perhaps this affirms the mystery and hiddenness of God. There is a clear relationship between Yahweh’s wrath and covenant. Wrath is primarily seen as a response to human sin, both personal and collective. Agents of the divine wrath are varied, including natural elements, sickness, and other nations. The exile is the most significant experience of Yahweh’s wrath against Israel. Increasingly there is an apocalyptic tone to Yahweh’s wrath.

THE UNIQUENESS OF YAHWEH’S WRATH

How does Israel’s conception of Yahweh’s wrath compare {60} to the common understanding of the Ancient Near East? Attributing anger to a deity was a common occurrence, and the motive of divine anger was also commonly understood as human sin, particularly with those who worshipped the Deity as the guardian of justice and keeper of laws (Eichrodt 259).

Israel does appear to differ in a number of ways. The first is that all events were seen as related to the will of Yahweh, the one God. Secondly, the purpose of Yahweh was understood as maintenance of the covenant. Divine wrath then became associated with the idea of breaking this covenant and offending Yahweh himself.

Another major difference between Yahweh and the other gods of that time was that even in personal relationship Yahweh’s wrath never takes on the characteristics of hatred and envy which are apparent in the Greek and Babylonian deities. Even though it is not always understandable, Yahweh’s wrath never takes on demonic attributes (Eichrodt 261). In addition, there is no recourse to magical rites to secure protection from the divine anger, as was done in the surrounding nations. Israel was dependent on Yahweh himself to constrain his wrath (Num. 14:17-19; 2 Sam. 12:13; Joel 2:18).

SOME IMPLICATIONS

An understanding of the wrath of God is significantly linked to a number of theological questions. That of theodicy comes immediately to mind. The suffering of humankind and the problem of evil are closely related to God’s wrath. If God did not respond to human evil (in retributive justice), his love would be an empty concept. Discipline and ultimate justice are essential to believing in Yahweh’s character as it is revealed in the Bible. The apocalyptic development of God’s wrath in the exilic and post-exilic prophets points to the final outworking of justice and righteousness.

Secondly, the wrath of God speaks to our understanding of the character of God himself. His wrath is not the impersonal and automatic functioning of universal laws. Yahweh is a personal, self-determined divine being who interacts with humankind. His wrath is then a real response to human behavior.

How then does the wrath of God relate to the God who is love? Schoonhoven addresses this concern, arguing that Yahweh’s wrath is never given the same significance or ultimacy {61} as his love. Yahweh is never capricious or evil in his wrath. It is not an irrational passion (8). Yahweh’s wrath is a part of his love, an integral part of his justice and mercy. His wrath must be seen within this larger picture, but is, I would assert, a fundamental aspect of his character and ways of dealing with humankind.

A more practical implication points to the importance of the wrath of God in the life of faith. Schoonhoven argues that both positive and negative rewards motivate ethical behavior. The wrath of God is to be understood as negative reward (9). This is corrective wrath, or the discipline of God. God is holy, and we are to warn one another of the effects of disobedience. Today there has been very little emphasis placed on this. Perhaps this stands as a corrective to the predominant theology of the “health and wealth gospel.”

CONCLUSION

The extensive evidence of Yahweh’s wrath in the Old Testament points to its importance for understanding the character and activity of God. This is an area which needs further attention. Understanding the nature of the wrath of Yahweh has implications for our theology and our practical living as disciples of Christ. As Walter Harrelson says, “God cares enough for humankind to be wrathful” (190).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Brouse, Kenneth D. “Anger: A Biblical and Psychological Study.” Biblical and Psychological Perspectives for Christian Counselors. Robert K. Bower ed. Pasadena: Publishers Services, 1974.
  • Crenshaw, James L. A Whirlpool of Torment; Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
  • Dahlberg, B.T. “Wrath of God.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4, 903-908.
  • Eichrodt, Walther. Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, London: SCM, 1961.
  • Hanson, Anthony T. The Wrath of the Lamb. London: S.P.C.K., 1957.
  • Harrelson, Walter. “A Meditation on the Wrath of God: Psalm 90.” Scripture in History and Theology. Ed. A.L. Merrill. Pittsburg: The Pickwick Press, 1977.
  • Hower, John T. “The Misunderstanding and Mishandling of Anger.” Journal of Psychology and Theology. 2 (1974): 269-275.
  • Koehler, Ludwig, and Baumgartner, Walter, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958.
  • Schoonhoven, C. R. “Wrath.” CR 13, no. 4, (1976-77): 7-11.
  • Wilson, William. Old Testament Word Studies. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1978.
Katrina Poetker is currently on a missionary assignment with her husband and family in India.

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