Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Angry God?

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
   the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.
The LORD takes vengeance on his foes
   and vents his wrath against his enemies.
The LORD is slow to anger but great in power;
   the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.
Nahum 1:2-3a

On a whim I started reading the Old Testament book of Nahum last night. Nahum is one of the Minor Prophets, i.e. the shorter books at the end of the Old Testament that are hard to understand and that, unfortunately, we tend to ignore. As I began reading, these first few verses jumped out at me because they cut across the grain of what our culture says is true about God. Our culture says that God is not filled with wrath. He is never vengeful. And because I am so affected by this modern view of God and not influenced enough by the Bible's view of Him, these first few verses make me feel a little uncomfortable too. Maybe you feel that same way. I would like to take just a few moments and give a defense for the Biblical view of God expressed in Nahum 1:2-3.

First, we need to know the background. Nahum is a vision and an oracle written about God's impending judgment on Nineveh. At this time in history Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. Assyria had conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel and carried them into exile and they were persecuting and imposing heavy taxes on the Southern kingdom of Judah. The Assyrian empire was well known for its cruelty in war. If the city of Nineveh sounds familiar to you, it is probably because you know it in relation to a much more popular Bible story from another minor prophet, Jonah. The book of Jonah details events that we think happened roughly one hundred years before Nahum received his vision. In Jonah the Lord sends a Jewish prophet to preach to the Ninevites so that they may repent and be forgiven. Jonah ran from this assignment because he hated the Ninevites (even then they were Israel's enemy). But God intervened and gave Jonah a one-of-a-kind transport to the city where he preached and the Ninevites repented and were spared from God's judgment. Now, probably a hundred years later, the Ninevites have turned their back on God again. They have attacked His people and His name and this time He will not relent in bringing them punishment.*

It is hard for us to  be unbiased in these matters. All our lives we have been surrounded by a culture that has force fed us one view of God. It is hard for us to step outside of our culture and give the Biblical view a fair look. Our culture would say that God is loving and patient. This is true and this is taught by Scripture (I John 4:8, 16, Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 144:2). The problem is that our culture says that God is never angry or vengeful. He is never filled with wrath. But the Bible says differently. The modern view of God is lopsided. Many in our culture and even many of us would be more than happy to strike the above verses from Scripture. You see, we don't merely want a God who is loving; we want a God who is only loving. We don't merely want a God who is patient; we want a God who is only patient. The problem here again is that this creates a lopsided God. A God who could not be angry that children are molested would be deficient. A God who did not exact justice on rapists would be of no use at all. A God who did not protect His own name and repay those who attack His people would be weak and not worth taking note of.

The classic example of the need for a just God is the Holocaust. A God who looks down on Hitler with only love is not more glorious because He loves so much. This God would be deficient. And a God who looks down on Hitler and decides to vent His anger and bring justice to this man is not less divine for doing so. A good God should be angry in that situation. Just because God has the character traits of love, patience, vengeance, and wrath in Him does not mean that they are all there in equal proportions. Nor does it mean that He experiences these emotions in the same way that humans do. God is not overcome by His anger like we are. His anger could never cause Him to act brashly or regretfully. His anger is always perfectly balanced by His love. Yet all of these traits need to be there because sometimes it is right for God to be angry and vengeful. There are some situations in which God would be less God if He wasn't angry. Just because God is sometimes angry however, does not mean that He is an "angry God." He is much better defined by His love and grace. He has gone through great lengths in His Son, Jesus, to show us these traits.

The fact of the matter is that it doesn't really matter what we want to be true of God. He is the way He is. Even the very name God gave Himself when He spoke to Moses at the burning bush means "I am who I am" or some translate it as "I will be what I will be." I think both renderings are true of God's nature. God is what He is. And He will continue to be what He will be regardless of what you or I think about it. He has revealed Himself to us in Scripture. This leaves us with a choice. We can either search out and accept the full, complete, and balanced view of God's nature revealed in Scripture, or we can create an image of god in our own minds that fits what we think should be true about him. This image of god will be non-threatening and comfortable to us because it will reflect all of our imperfections and misgivings. There will be no need to fear this god. Nor much reason to obey him since at the end of the day he will be just a creation of our own minds.

So embrace the mystery of God! Praise Him that He is too big and too great for you to fully understand. Praise God that He is both loving and jealous. He is both forgiving and just. He is slow to anger but He is also wrathful and ready to avenge His name and His people. All of these qualities are present and necessary in a holy God. Praise God for being holy.

For further reading...
  • Jonah- It's only four chapters.
  • Nahum- It's only three chapters.
  • Isaiah 55:8-9- My ways are higher than your ways.
*I have an ESV Study Bible that gives historical and biblical background to the Bible and I have found it to be extremely helpful. The historical information in the above post is based off of the "Introduction to Nahum" in that study Bible.

1 comment:

Jen said...

Thanks Lance! I really appreciate the historical background that you included here. I think it's so easy for us to apply whatever we read to current situations without getting the whole picture.
I think the other important thing, which you mention, is that God's anger is not like our anger. Because we're human we tend to think of and understand God's wrath and anger in the ways that we do wrath and anger (maybe like Hitler?), which is usually evil, not good. But God's anger is not our anger, like you said it's not evil, it's good. God's anger is bigger and more powerful than we can understand and I would even argue that God's anger is so much more than we can understand that it IS love. I think we have to keep leaving space for that mystery for God to keep filling.