Are you ready for an angry Bible verse? Deep breath. Okay.
The Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. The mountains shake, and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised. (Isaiah 5:25)
Yikes! Dead bodies in the streets? That’s a lot of anger.
The passage above is from the prophet Isaiah, who is warning Israel that God’s judgment is coming. In fact, the entire chapter is one long indictment against the people of Israel. They’ve become corrupt and arrogant, and God has had enough. Invading armies are coming to cause death and exile, and Isaiah is prophesying that they will leave dead bodies in their wake.
God’s anger is no joke, and it understandably makes us uncomfortable. In fact, God’s anger is one of the main reasons people state for not liking the God of the Bible. But if we take a closer look at the biblical stories about God’s anger, we will find a more complex and nuanced picture than we might assume.
An Emotional God
Anger is a human emotion. It is a feeling of adrenaline that comes with increased blood flow to your muscles. Your muscles contract, your skin gets hot, and your mind focuses on the problem at hand. In fact, the main way to say you are angry in Hebrew is “your nose burned hot.” Yes, that’s right. One of the main Hebrew words for “anger” is “nose!” This Hebrew metaphor is based on our physical experience of anger: when you are angry, your face gets hot, including your nose.
We’ve all experienced that sensation—the body’s response to anger. And in Hebrew, common ways to talk about anger are to say you are “great of nose” or that you have a “hot nose.”
The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger [literally in Hebrew “his great nose”] is against all who forsake him. (Ezra 8:22)
He poured out on them his burning anger [literally “the heat of his nose”]. (Isaiah 42:25)
the Lord’s anger burned [literally “his nose burned hot”]. (Deuteronomy 29:27)
But God doesn’t have a nose, and he doesn’t feel heat in the way humans do, right? The literary device at play here is called anthropomorphism—taking something that is not human but describing it with distinctly human characteristics. It’s a way for us to understand God’s emotional responses, to frame them in the way that we as humans experience emotions. So while God is not human, he does get angry. And he has good reason for reacting to human behavior with anger. In fact, God wouldn’t be good if he didn’t have strong reactions to evil and injustice.
But we have to be careful here. God experiencing anger doesn’t mean we can take all of our human experience with anger and apply it to God. Divine anger is not the exact thing as human anger.
“The prophets never [portray] God’s anger as something that cannot be accounted for, unpredictable, irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but a reaction occasioned by the conduct of humans...and motivated by concern for right and wrong.” –– Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 2, “The Theology of Pathos,” p362.
Why Does God Get Angry?
In the Bible God gets angry at human violence. He gets angry at powerful leaders who oppress other humans. And the thing that makes God more angry than anything else in the Bible is Israel’s constant covenant betrayal.
All of these examples have something in common: they are all expressions of God’s anger at humanity’s idolatry. Humans don’t take seriously the fact that we are made in the image of God. Rather, we elevate power, wealth, sex, and lots of other things to the status of a god. And then, in the name of our deified ideals and idols, we create communities and institutions that neglect, marginalize, and even destroy other people made in God’s image. And all this fallout and pain caused by human idolatry makes God’s angry, and rightfully so. There are some things that are worth getting angry about.
Think of it this way. While anger can be a destructive force, there are some situations where we view anger as necessary and right. When someone sees injustice happening, getting angry is a warranted response. In fact, most of us would say that a person who feels nothing when they see terrible injustice is not emotionally or mentally healthy. Anger can be a protective energy. This is how God’s anger is expressed in the Bible. God is not a volatile angry being who loses his cool now and then. Rather, God’s anger is a measured and reasonable response to injustice and evil. So, how does the God of the Bible express his anger?
What Does God’s Anger Look Like?
The first thing to know about God’s anger is that it is slow. Look at how God describes his own character in Exodus 34:6.
Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loyal love and faithfulness.
The phrase “slow to anger” in Hebrew literally means “long of nose,” as in it takes a long time for God’s nose to get hot! God is patient, and he gives people a lot of chances to rethink their decisions and change.
One of the biggest villains of the Bible is Pharaoh in the book of Exodus. He is responsible for the enslavement of Israel and the attempted genocide of the Israelites’ infant sons. But despite all of this evil, God gives him ten chances to change his ways.
The apostle Paul reflects on how God’s patience with humanity is so great that we as humans are apt to take advantage of it. This is why he rhetorically asks this question in his letter to the Romans:
Do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
God is patient, yes, but there is a limit to his patience.
God Hands Us Over
In the Bible we see this phrase over and over—when God gets angry, he “hands us over.” But what does this mean?
In Genesis chapter 1, God speaks into being a cosmic order where life and humanity can flourish. The dark waters in Genesis 1, which represent chaos and disorder, are not eliminated. Rather, they are tamed and held back by God’s sustaining power. This is why God is celebrated in the Bible as constantly holding back the forces of disorder and death (see Psalm 46). God could “let go” and allow creation to collapse back into disorder due to human evil. In fact, one time he did! The flood story in Genesis 6-9 depicts what it looks like for God to take his hand off the steering wheel of creation and let the chaotic waters of Genesis 1 flood back in.
These early chapters of Genesis offer a fundamental portrait of God’s justice and anger. When humans do great evil and stop representing God’s Kingdom in the world, he “hands them over” to the death and disorder they have unleashed in creation. And that phrase, “he handed them over,” is one of the most common ways that God expresses his anger in the biblical story.
They provoked the Lord because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. And the Lord’s anger burned hot against Israel and the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. (Judges 2:12-14)
For more examples, see Judges 3:7-8, 10:6-7, or 2 Kings 13:2-3. There are dozens more!
These Old Testament stories are summarized by the apostle Paul when he talks about God’s anger in his letter to the Romans, repeating the phrase “God gave them over.”
God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts (Romans 1:24)
God gave them over to shameful lusts (Romans 1:26)
God gave them over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:28)
Another way God’s anger is described in the Bible is through the metaphor of God “hiding his face,” a withdrawal of divine presence and power. This is what God says to Moses about what he will do when Israel reaches their limit of corruption.
[Israel] will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. And in that day my anger will burn hot with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, “Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?” And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods. (Deuteronomy 31:16-18)
The biblical authors want us to see that God’s anger is always a response to human betrayal and evil, and it’s expressed through handing humans over to the logical consequences of their decisions. In other words, God’s anger is expressed by giving humans what they want, or at least, what they’ve chosen. And if what we’ve chosen is ruin and death, then that’s what we will get.
Saved from God’s Wrath
In the Bible, it’s a tragedy when God hides his face and gives us what we want. It means that humanity can’t accomplish the task for which we were created, to be his royal image-bearing creatures. This is why the story of the Bible finds its climax in Jesus. God was not content to let humanity destroy itself, so he came to rescue us. Here is how Paul reflects on this in his letter to the Romans.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)
In God’s anger, humanity has been handed over to death, but that isn’t the end of the story. God’s love is even greater. In Paul’s mind, it is God’s own love that answers to God’s own wrath, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of God hiding his face or handing us over, he has reconciled us to himself. And in turn, we get to experience God’s own powerful, creative life in us.
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