The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

God’s wrath is of love. This is not something we normally think about, to be sure, but according to the Scriptures God’s wrath is in fact a function of His love, something He exhibits out of love. This is something which struck me a couple weeks ago when I read this text for a Sunday school lesson:

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.

Judges 2:11-16

The story here is this: Israel was delivered by the free grace of God from Egypt and given the Torah as covenant charter, a document establishing the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The Torah stipulated certain curses if Israel failed to obey, most importantly including devastation at the hands of foreign nations. They obeyed (mostly-ish) for a time under the strong leadership of Moses and then Joshua. But finally Joshua died, and idolatry flooded the nation in very little time. So God was under obligation by the terms of the covenant He entered to punish Israel for their unfaithfulness.

Thus we arrive at this text. In response to Israel’s breaking of the covenant, God responded with the curses of the covenant. They worshipped Baals and Astartes, breaking the first two commandments. So God let their enemies plunder the land, gave them failure in their military endeavors, and put them under wicked, oppressive rulers. When we simply skim some verses about this kind of judgment, we are likely to miss just how strong it is. Imagine for a moment the scene of raiders charging through a peaceful village, killing and burning and stealing. Moms search for their children in rubble, families are suddenly decimated, and hard-working people find their homes and livelihoods reduced to rubble. We speak here of horrendous suffering.

Does the word “love” come to mind in this picture? Do you see love here? Yet Scripture tells us that it is indeed present here. It’s in fact God’s original motivation. For these penalties were imposed by the Torah, which itself was a gift of love by which God made up His covenant with Israel. God chose Israel and made a covenant with them out of love, and yet He included these curses in His covenant. The curses are part of, as it were, the marriage contract between God and Israel.

This covenantal form of love is the context for God’s wrath. His wrath operates for the covenant partner. By sending afflictions on Israel for their unfaithfulness, God calls them to return to Him and find the life which He has to offer. If there is no life except from God, then for Israel to pursue anyone or anything else is to run from life. Therefore it is by love that God is angered by Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry. As one analogy, nothing will make you more angry with your child than seeing them engage consistently and unrepentantly in self-destructive behavior. Israel degraded herself by idol worship, which aroused the fury of her Husband who loved her and sought her best.

Yet unlike some of us, unlike the frustrated parents or jealous husbands we know, God’s wrath is never uncontrolled or unpredictable. God will never be overwhelmed with passion or so frustrated that He loses control. He does not fly off the handle. Instead, His anger is specifically limited and controlled. He set the terms of His wrath in the Torah, giving detailed rules and guidelines for how He would respond to Israel’s sins. In God’s covenant of love, He limits and directs His fury. And His fury comes from no place but His covenant of love.

Therefore God is love. And even His wrath serves that love, and is specially controlled and limited for our sake. The idea of a wrathful God ought not scare us or make us uncomfortable at all unless we are also uncomfortable with a loving God. “For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Heb. 15:6).

The Loving God of Wrath and Covenant

Very Short Thoughts on the Tower of Babel

These are just the quick notes I took on the Tower of Babel incident while reading through Genesis 10-11 this morning.

  • The motivation for the tower of Babel is interesting. The one people wanted to unite in glory in resistance to God’s intention to bless the earth through their filling and diversification. It appears there was some clear awareness on their part that they were resisting this call.
  • God’s motivation is just as peculiar, if not more so. On one hand, at a prima facie level it appears that God feels threatened by humanity’s united power and wishes to stop them from what powerful things they could accomplish as one people. Yet this reading seems problematic, theology proper aside. It does not take into account what the people said in the previous verse, nor is it coherent. Why would a God who already performed creation and was able to confuse human languages feel threatened by mere mortals? I suspect God was more concerned with their particular plans to build a single metropolitan and continue resisting the call to spread out and diversify. As long as they had one language, nothing would be able to convince them to give up on this project and separate.
  • If we take Babel as mostly the story of God’s plans for blessing and humanity’s ongoing resistance (which would fit well into the Pentateuch as a whole), then there is clear application. God often calls us to do hard and uncomfortable things for our own good; indeed, this is mostly all He says to us! He may ask us to break certain cherished ties and go places, just as He will do to Abram in the next chapter. Yet the plan is always for the consummation and redemption of creation, and so every step is ultimately designed to bless us. The question on our part is if we will have the faith to simply do what He calls us to do, trusting that He actually does have our best interests at heart.
Very Short Thoughts on the Tower of Babel

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

The Cure That Killed the Patient

The Old Testament can be a very scary place. You can’t disagree if you’ve read much of it at all, unless of course you like massive body counts and total destruction. From the frequent application of the death penalty to the bloody conquests of Israel over the Canaanite peoples, there is a lot to unsettle the stomach. I know from experience the strain this violence can create on attempting to have relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ during the New Testament.

What I find more disturbing, though, is how many people in popular theology these days are trying to handle this tension. Writers like Peter Enns and others have promoted dealing with these tough texts by more or less excising them from our theology. Because Jesus is the true Word of God and is so non-violent in the Gospels, they argue, the portraits of divine violence in the Old Testament must be distorted by bad Jewish theology. “God lets His children tell the story,” so they say.

As I explained in a recent post, this is a very problematic approach to the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament, the God who dwells fully in Jesus Christ, identifies Himself with Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. Enns and Co. would agree with this. But what they miss is that Yahweh’s defining moment in the Old Testament is made precisely of the kind of very violence they say God must not have done based on Jesus. What is this defining moment? The Exodus. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God identifies Himself as the God who brought His people out of Egypt1. And there is no separating God’s saving Israel in the Exodus from the violent miracles involved2. So if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has any continuity at all with the God who led Israel out of Egypt, we cannot ignore Old Testament violence. And if He is not the same God, then we’re left in Marcion’s heresy with a completely unintelligible Christ and a foundationally misled New Testament.

Another Way? Maybe Holy Love

Of course, I’ve said as much as this before. What I’d like to address in this post is an actual alternative. Usually after dismissing the tea-strainer approach to the Old Testament, I and others who stand firm on this issue don’t have much of a positive response. If discounting the stories of OT violence as Israelite distortions is the wrong way to understand them, then what is the right way? Should we just swallow the whole without trying to comprehend what our God of love was doing then?

Obviously, apathy isn’t the way of faith, either. We need to try and apply what we know of God in Jesus Christ to what happened in the Old Testament, but we must do so with recognition that the “wrath of the Lamb”3 actually does exist. So how can we do this? I intend in this post to provide something of a way forward, with help from, again, T. F. Torrance, this time drawing mostly from his shorter book The Mediation of Christ.

What do we know of God’s love? We know that this love characterizes God in a deep way4, was revealed in the cross5, and is no more or less applicable to God than His holiness6. So what do these truths tell us? A couple of thoughts come to mind. First off, if holiness is as essential to God as Scripture indicates (and anything repeated three times like in Rev. 4:8 must be), and yet John can say, “God is love,” then these two “attributes” of God must be intimately related and connected, perhaps only two forms of one reality (especially if God is simple). God is not just holy and not just love, but is “holy love.”

What does holy love look like? For an understanding of holy love to “work”, that is, to do justice to what God has revealed of Himself in our history, the definition must be able to handle both Joshua and 1 John, the “Stone the blasphemers” and the “Neither do I condemn you.” So my attempted construction of this concept is as follows: Holy love is love so powerful and incomparable that it stands above all lesser loves, endlessly opposing them for not being loving enough. A holy love cannot compromise with hatred or self-love, but instead burns against them like a fire. Holy love is a freely devoted living for the beloved, which is so for the beloved that the lover must contradict anything which threatens the beloved, whether other people or the beloved herself. So to the beloved in herself, holy love appears like this: “You reveal the path of life to me; in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures”7. But to whoever threatens the beloved, holy love appears as a “consuming fire”8.

With this understanding of holy love in mind, the second part of this post will attempt to examine the specific Old Testament problems. At this point, I’ve nearly hit 1000 words, which is the max attention span of the average blog reader. So even if you could read more, I think I’d prefer to split this post because I have quite a bit more. I’ve only laid the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say. I guess try to think about what I’ve said so far until part two comes ’round.

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

God isn’t always easy to trust. I don’t just mean in the daily lives of living out of faith. I mean even based on what we know of Him, it can be tough to trust Him to be good. Prime example:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: ‘I witnessed what the Amalekites did to the Israelites when they opposed them along the way as they were coming out of Egypt. Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

1 Samuel 15:2-3

Think about that for a moment. Here God, our God revealed in Jesus Christ, says to kill all of the Amalekites without mercy. Even the children and infants. This is not, either, the only time in the Bible that God gives such commands to Israel. There are many tough texts in the Bible, especially in the early Old Testament.. What do we make of that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” and John said, “God is love?” Can these things possibly even mesh at all?

According to a growing number of people, the answer is an obvious “no.” Popular thinkers and writers like Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans are willing to relegate these instructions to the projections of the Israelites onto their God. The character of Yahweh in the Old Testament, as many will now tell you, is a picture of God distorted by the cultural sins and prejudices of ancient Israel.

On one hand, this sounds good. It would be nice to say, as Enns does, that “God lets His children tell the story,” and leave all the uncomfortable bits in the trash bin of Israel’s sin. But is this really viable? Is this a truly Christian way of reading Scripture? I don’t think so. We have to be willing, as far as I can tell, to let God tell His story through His method, namely the Bible, gore and all.

How can we understand these difficult texts, then? How do we reconcile in our minds the God who died for all the Amalekite children and the God who had them executed? Some people don’t try and just live in denial of the tension. Some people divide God’s will into two, with God’s house divided against itself as He pursues both His love for people and His love for His glory. But a truly Christian way of handling these difficult parts of the Bible requires Christ, namely seeing all of Scripture through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself said that all Scriptures point to Him, and that He fulfills their meaning and purpose.

How does this relate to these hard verses? According to people like Enns, the love of the Cross undermines them. If Jesus is love to such an extent, then Yahweh the Warrior must not be pure revelation but human corruption. Yet this seems dangerous to me, mainly because I believe Jesus and the Apostles treated the entire Old Testament revelation of God as an infallible authority and assumed that portrait in their theology. This even includes His holy wars.

If that “solution” doesn’t work, what does? How do we reconcile these two different views of God? Well, I still point us to the Cross, but in a different way. Instead of undermining the Old Testament violence, I believe the Cross gives us reason to trust God in spite of such things. Yes, God seems to have ordered the wholesale extermination of the Amalekite people, but we should let the Cross teach us that God’s love is even at work here, not that it didn’t happen by God’s plan. Whatever judgment He was willing to inflict on the Amalekite people and children, He willingly suffered Himself for their salvation. If God can perform the ultimate act of love within the horror of His own Son’s unjust crucifixion, surely He can love in anything else.

Ultimately, this all calls for faith. Do you trust that God is good? I do, honestly. I don’t always understand Him, but I trust that He is good. Moreover, I trust that He is good in the revelation He gave us. I trust that He gave us a reliable picture of Himself, even in the tough texts in the Bible, and that this somehow flows with His all-consuming love. How can this be? I don’t have a clue, but like Mary I trust His promise and wait patiently to see what He will do. And even in that I do struggle with this. This is one of the questions that can keep me up at nights, forcing me to surf the web for smart believers with fresh insights. But even then, I wait patiently for God to answer, even if that will not happen before Jesus returns. I can trust Him in the wait, because Jesus proved His love. My prayer is that you can, too.

When God Doesn’t Seem Good: Living with Tough Texts in the Bible

Smite Mine Enemies: Applying Violent Psalms

The Bible is loaded with violence. I mean, seriously, if the entire Bible were made into movies, quite a number of them would be rated R for violence alone. Now, most of the violence is Scripture isn’t something that we must concern ourselves with, as it is simply a historical description of stuff that happened. Some is more difficult and scary, but I’ll leave the most significant concerns for another piece. For now, I want to consider the violent psalms (also known as “imprecatory psalms”). We love the book of Psalms. They’re great poetry, inspiring and comforting, touching every part of the human experience. But then we have psalms like this one (I’m quoting it in full to make the point):

Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge people with equity?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.

Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.

Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns—
whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”

Psalm 58

Whoa. Pretty harsh. The righteous will be glad when we dip our feet in the blood of the wicked? Okay…

I could write all day on why these violent psalms are written, and why they are Scripture, and how they are compatible with God’s love and the command to love our enemies, but I have no need to, because many others have already done so better than I could ever do. I would simply sum this part up with a quote from C. S. Lewis (though despite my appreciation for this statement I disagree with most of what he said from the context in which he wrote this): “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it…is hateful to God.”

What I’d rather address is how we can actually make use of these violent psalms today. If we understand them, can we pray them as well? Should we ask God to smite our those who do wrong to us, those who treat us badly and hurt us? No, we have a direct command from Jesus to love our enemies and pray for them (that doesn’t mean for their destruction, by the way). So what do we do with these psalms? Well, three things come to mind.

  1. Pray for the triumph of righteousness and justice. These psalms were directed against enemies who fought against Israel and God, nations who would interrupt the world’s redemption. The psalmists wanted to see God vindicated and the evildoers stopped. Likewise, we ought to pray that God will stop those who do evil today, and that instead justice and mercy will fill our world.
  2. Heed the implicit warnings. If you read these psalms, you should conclude one thing: God hates sin and will do terrible destruction to sinners. So if you don’t want to be judged like that, if you don’t want people to be happy if your babies are dashed against the rocks (Ps. 137:9), live rightly and obey God’s commands.
  3. Pray for the destruction of our true enemies. Paul tells us that we aren’t struggling against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers and demonic forces. They assault God’s people every day and try to thwart the Kingdom of God, just like Israel’s enemies back in the day. The world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly assailing us, and God hates them for it. We ought to, as well, so let us pray for God’s conquest and victory to be ushered in speedily against these foes.
Smite Mine Enemies: Applying Violent Psalms