One of my friends is a fairly new Christian. She recently remarked that she didn’t like reading the Old Testament, and when I asked why, she said “God just seems awfully angry.” I replied with something profound like “hmm”, and the conversation went on from there.
But that remark squirreled away in my brain, and, coupled with my recent bible reading, sparked some thoughts. This is absolutely not some great theological, exegetical, hermeneutical, scholarly paper, just my thoughts. So if you want detailed scholarly information, see elsewhere. Or just read the Old Testament.
God seems angry in the Old Testament? Why yes, yes he does. He was angry quite a lot. But why? Why was God so angry?
To figure that out, we have to look at the history of Israel. God had taken a ragtag bunch of slaves from their harsh taskmasters in Egypt, as he had promised hundreds of years before. He heard their cry, took pity on them, came down, picked Moses to lead them, did a whole bunch of big miraculous signs, including killing the Pharaoh and his army, to get them out. Once they were out, he provided for them miraculously in the desert, including repeatedly listening to their cries for meat or water or food or whatever, and giving it to them. He preserved them so their stuff didn’t wear out even though they were tramping around the desert. He brought them into the land he had promised them, a really nice land that produced abundant agricultural products, and assisted them in kicking out the people who lived there (whether that was a really nice thing or not is a topic for a different time).
God made a covenant with Israel, a solemn promise. A good modern-day illustration would be a marriage, which, despite the fact that it’s so easily and commonly broken by divorce, is supposed to be a promise that you will spend the rest of your life with this person and take care of them in good times and bad, etc etc. In fact, that’s a perfect illustration because it’s the analogy God uses: he says he’s Israel’s husband and she’s his unfaithful wife. In the covenant God promises that he will be Israel’s God and look after them and have a special relationship with them. In turn, they promise to obey him and love him and be faithful to him and not worship other gods, which is the spiritual equivalent of having an affair with someone who is not your husband. If they obey, they will be blessed: with land, with produce, with peace, with prosperity. If they don’t, they will be cursed, and eventually, they will get conquered by their enemies and thrown out of their land.
And here’s the kicker: Israel agrees to all this. They hear God speaking, telling them all the terms of the covenant, including the blessings for obeying and the curses for disobeying, and they agree. They marry themselves to God that day forever and ever amen.
And then they go out and worship a golden calf that they make themselves.
And then...the entire history of Israel. Where God does miraculous things for them, takes care of them, provides for them, just as he promised in his half of the covenant. And what do they do? They worship other gods. They oppress the poor. They are violent and unjust. They do horrific things like sacrifice their children by burning them in fire to other gods. They refuse to change their ways or worship God. In other words, they do absolutely whatever they can do to shamelessly break their half of the covenant and throw a big “nah, nah, you can’t make me” at God.
So God sends them curses he promised. He allows their enemies to come and harass them. He allows drought and famine.
And then Israel “repents”. Under the pressure of hard circumstances, they cry out to God for mercy. And what does he do? He sends it. Instead of getting sick and tired of this faithless people who have never kept their promises to him, despite the fact that he has always kept his promises to them, he rescues them. He sends a judge or a king or somebody to fix the situation. He conquers their enemies. They are all grateful and promise once again never to forget, and to worship God forever.
And then? They forget, and begin worshipping other gods, and doing whatever the hell they please. And the whole cycle begins over again, lather, rinse, repeat.
And it’s not like they can say they didn’t know. God continually sends them prophets to remind them about him. About the covenant. About what they are supposed to do and Whom they are supposed to obey. And they refuse. They kill the prophets.
So eventually, God has enough. After many many many years, he finally gets thoroughly sick of these people who don’t get it. He brings out the ultimate punishment: he allows their enemies to remove them from their land. And he doesn’t even do it all at once: it happens in stages.
I was super struck in my reading of Ezekiel how God says: “how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols.” (Ez. 6:9) God has had enough. He has been patient with these people, he has wooed them as a husband woos his beloved wife, he has cared for them, he has sent prophets to plead with them, he has forgiven them again and again, he has rescued them over and over, and this time, God has reached his breaking point. He can’t take it any more.
And yet, even in the ultimate punishment, God still has mercy. In the middle of terrible predictions of judgement and calamity and mothers eating their infant children, he promises that he will preserve his people even in the land of exile. He promises that he will bring them back one day. And he makes even greater promises, hints of a New Covenant, one in which his people will be changed from the inside out, so they will have hearts that want to love and obey him, that want to be faithful to him, that won’t go away from him to worship idols (like money and good jobs and social status and relationships and things like that).
So was God angry in the Old Testament? Yup, you bet he was. Why? Because his heart was broken over a people that refused to give him his due, just as a loving husband would be angry and grieved over a wife who refused to stop sleeping with other men, who refused to love and respect him, who refused to be faithful to her marriage vows and her family. Yup, that’s exactly how God felt.
So what does that mean for us today? Has God stopped being angry?
Well, yes and no.
If we’re in Jesus, then absolutely yes, God’s wrath and just judgement against our sin was hurled against him at the cross, and we bear it no more. If we have genuinely repented of our sin and put our trust in Jesus and pledged to follow him with the rest of our lives, then no, God is not angry with us.
But. And here’s a big but, and one that has to be carefully stated.
God does not hate sin any less than he did in the Old Testament. God doesn’t have any less of a desire for a faithful people that will love him, obey him, worship him, honour him, and reflect him to the world. It’s not like God decided, “OK, whatever they want to do now is fine, Jesus got that covered, I don’t care anymore. I’m going to go take a nap.”
Unfortunately, I think that’s the picture of “grace” that we get given in a lot of churches. Like once we’re a Christian, God loves us and stuff, and it doesn’t really matter anymore what we do, cause God’s going to forgive us anyway, right? Cause Jesus took care of all of that.
Uh, no. If anything, the moral code in the New Testament is FAR higher than that of the Old. You think not sleeping with your friend’s hot wife gets you off the hook? Try not fantasizing about her.
God’s ultimate goal is, and ALWAYS has been, a people that look like him. Who live like he designed us to in this world. Who love justice, mercy, and righteousness. A people who obey him no matter what. A people that the outside world can look at and go, “Oh, OK. There’s a God, and he’s like that.”
It’s just that now, God made sure that that would happen. When he puts us in Jesus, he cleanses our hearts, gives us new hearts, puts his Holy Spirit inside of us, so we obey because we want to, and because we have the power to. We worship God with our whole being.
But if we don’t? It’s not like it doesn’t matter. It’s not like there are no consequences for rejecting God or spurning this new covenant. Hebrews is all about that. Go read it. It’s about how we have been given something so much better, something REAL instead of the picture-covenant of the Israelites, and holy heck you better watch out if you reject it, because the consequences are eternal, not temporal. Take this thing seriously. Don’t think you can just indulge in sin, drift away from God, disobey, ignore him, and then play the “but I accepted Jesus into my heeeeaarrrt!” card. Won’t work. God’s playing for keeps. He wants a people who are too.
God is serious about holiness. Yes, he will forgive sin, and thank God for that. But a heart that loves him will not be thinking about how much it can sin and get away with. A heart that loves him knows how poisonous sin is, is utterly thankful to have been rescued from it, and wants to live a life shunning it because closeness to God is a far greater treasure than any momentary pleasure of sin that leaves lasting bitterness and regret (1 John 3:4-7).