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.
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).