Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Goodness of God's Wrath

Some like to think that the Old and New Testaments present two different gods. The Old Testament presents a God of wrath while the New Testament portrays God as being full of grace and mercy, or so the argument goes. These two images conflict and simply cannot be reconciled. But the God of the Bible is not schizophrenic or two-faced. A close reading of Scripture will yield a simple but powerful truth that helps us here.

God's wrath is mixed with grace.

God is not schizophrenic or two faced. His character is the same throughout Scripture, but God isn't simple either. Even humans are complicated mixtures of many different traits and characteristics all coming together to define who we are as individuals. So too God is one, yet He has wrath and grace... and patience and justice and gentleness and righteousness, and on and on. God has many attributes in his character and they are all in the perfect proportion and measure so that all come together in one perfect God. Since God's wrath and grace are in perfect proportion, they are not contrary to one another but often show up side-by side. They are intermingled. You will almost never see God's wrath presented in Scripture without an accompanying offer of grace.

This is what we see in the book of Zephaniah. The book starts out with an announcement of God's wrath.
"I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea— and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.” “When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. (Zephaniah 1:2-3)
This leads us to a couple of questions. Why is God angry? And what is the result of God's anger?

If you study the context of this passage you'll find that God had good reason to be angry. God's people have forsaken Him and run after false gods. They have set up idols in the temple that Solomon built in which God's Shekinah glory had dwelt. There was an Asherah idol in the Temple, altars on the roof, and even houses for male cult prostitutes alongside the temple where the people would practice sexual rituals in worship of these false gods. There were high places all over Judah where the people bowed down to the stars, sun, moon and planets. In the Valley of Topheth the people made sacrifices to Molek. This was particularly detestable to God because parents would sacrifice their own children in fire to this false god. 2 Kings 21:16 tells us that King Manasseh (who had recently reigned) "shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end." God's people were prideful, violent, deceitful and complacent. (The content of this paragraph is gleaned from the book of Zephaniah as well as 2 Kings 21-23 and 2 Chronicles 33-35.)

God will not stand by while His children worship false gods. The New Testament tells us that when people sacrifice to these idols they are really sacrificing to demons. This isn’t just wrong it is dangerous for us. God often uses the analogy of marriage to describe His relationship to His people. God will not share His worship any more than a good husband will share his wife or vice versa. God will not suffer an open marriage. He is a jealous God in the best way. We are rightfully His, He will not allow us to be stolen away by demons who intend to do us harm.

So it turns out that God should be angry! His wrath is just. A God who has no wrath is no good. I don't want to serve a god who has no anger over child sacrifices. I don't want a god who doesn't get angry when the weak are victimized and abused, when the poor are defrauded, or when his people worship demons. If God wasn’t angry at these things, if He didn’t punish these, then He wouldn’t be good! So, I'll say it again. A god with no wrath is no good.

What we find in the book of Zephaniah and throughout the Old Testament and the whole of the Bible though is not only that God's wrath is justified but that it is in fact intermingled with grace. God’s wrath is good and He can be trusted! We see this when we ask our second question: what is the result of God's anger? Consider the outcome in the book of Zephaniah.
Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”(Zephaniah 3:14-17)
Do you see what God has done? A book that began with fear and complete destruction ends with joy and singing. The punishment God brings results in singing, shouts of joy, rejoicing, and gladness for His people. His anger is turned to delight, forgiveness, love, and nearness to His people. As Matthew Henry puts it, “God’s design is not to drive them to despair but to drive them to God and to their duty- not to frighten them out of their wits, but to frighten them out of their sins” (quoted from Matthew Henry's Unabridged Commentary on the Whole Bible, notes on Zephaniah.)

God disciplines His children as a father disciplines the son He loves (Hebrews 12:5-7). The results He longs to bring for His children are restoration and joy! This isn’t a fickle, despotic God, but a fiercely loving, jealous and righteous God. So if you sense that you are under Gods wrath, under His discipline right now, then take comfort in this truth. It is not God’s pleasure to crush you, but to restore you! Even this is for your good. God is eager for your return. He pursues you for relationship and for restoration, not for destruction.

Praise God for His goodness that even His wrath is mixed with grace, even His judgment is consistent with mercy. God is a God of hope. Even in His fierce anger, he longs for us to turn to Him. Will you stop running away from God today? Will you turn toward Him? Will you repent and lay down your arms and surrender? If you will, then He will make you a beloved son or daughter today. That’s what a Christian is. We all used to be enemies of God. We hated Him and His ways. We rebelled against His authority, but He captured us with His love. We surrendered to His grace and He has adopted us and made us His very own sons and daughters.

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