This time the subject of God’s wrath, and once again our question is this: “Does God’s wrath describe an active agression or punishment from God toward his sinful children, or is this describing the natural consequences that are the result of separation from God?” Early on in Jesus’ ministry, he was handed the scroll of Isaiah during synagogue and asked to read:
“Jesus went back to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and as usual he went to the meeting place on the Sabbath. When he stood up to read from the Scriptures, he was given the book of Isaiah the prophet. He opened it and read, ‘The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’ Jesus closed the book, then handed it back to the man in charge and sat down. Everyone in the meeting place looked straight at Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, ‘What you have just heard me read has come true today.’ All the people started talking about Jesus and were amazed at the wonderful things he said. They kept on asking, ‘Isn’t he Joseph’s son?’”(Luke 4:16-22)
But when we compare what Jesus read in Isaiah chapter 61, we see that Jesus left something out:
“The Spirit of the Almighty LORD is with me because the LORD has anointed me to deliver good news to humble people. He has sent me to heal those who are brokenhearted, to announce that captives will be set free and prisoners will be released. He has sent me to announce the year of the LORD’S good will and the day of our God’s vengeance, to comfort all those who grieve.” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
I love this interpretation of why Jesus left out the words about God’s vengeance:
“When Jesus in the synagogue read from the prophecy, He stopped short of the final specification concerning the Messiah’s work. Having read the words, “To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,” He omitted the phrase, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Isa. 61:2. This was just as much truth as was the first of the prophecy, and by His silence Jesus did not deny the truth. But this last expression was that upon which His hearers delighted to dwell, and which they were desirous of fulfilling.” (DA, pg. 240)
Jesus’ audience had misunderstood God’s wrath and so Jesus simply left it out. In their mind, “God’s wrath” essentially translated to: “God will trounce anyone who is not a part of us”. It was this part of the passage in Isaiah that they loved. This was the “high-five” moment and so it provided a considerable let-down when Jesus read over it – and, in fact, 2 verses later they are trying to throw him off a cliff!
This story reminded me of the way that I have many times quoted the passage in Exodus 34 when Moses asked to see the “the dazzling light of God’s presence.” I remember reading this passage for the first time and wondering if I would get to “see” what God looked like. But instead, what follows is a description of God’s character:
“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Exodus 34:6,7)
I’ve noticed though that I usually quote this part of the verse as evidence for God’s character, but leave off the last part which says this:
“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.”
It’s not for the purpose of being deceptive, but merely because this is so easily misunderstood (and to quote it means that considerable time must then be dedicated to explaining it!). Does God really punish to the 3rd and 4th generations? God himself very directly tells us in the book of Ezekiel that he does not (we have dealt with this passage in part 6 of this series). The point is, God is always showing us both sides of the coin – one that leads to life and one that leads to death. The side of the coin that leads to separation from God and death is the experience of God’s wrath. In this passage, God is using very hard words (to reach a very hardened people) in order that they will stop and listen to see how serious this other side of the coin is!
If in doubt as to whether these were a hardened people that needed strong words, read the things that God had to tell them not to do while they were camped at Mount Sinai:
“Do not have sexual intercourse with any of your relatives. Do not disgrace your father by having intercourse with your mother. You must not disgrace your own mother…No man or woman is to have sexual relations with an animal; that perversion makes you ritually unclean” (Leviticus 18:7,23)
People that need to be told those kinds of things require more than a gentle reminder and God is more than willing to use threatening words if those are the only words that will penetrate hardened and rebellious hearts – just as any loving parent can appreciate the need for tough words at times. Our God is willing to speak the language that even a stubborn mule can understand: “The people of Israel are as stubborn as mules; how can I feed them like lambs in a meadow?” (Hosea 4:16) Let’s be careful though not to misunderstand God as being arbitrary, vengeful and severe as we listen to him shout to stubborn mules. (Of course, that mule has probably been me at times!)
The question is, “What does God’s wrath really look like in action?” My own personal opinion is that when we take the Bible as a whole there is a clear, well defined, and beautiful answer as to what God’s wrath is. The results of my study are presented in this PDF article entitled, “The Wrath of the Lamb.”