Trying to describe what God is like can be difficult—or even daunting. But when the biblical authors pondered the mystery of God, they consistently described God’s character in this way: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and overflowing with loyal love and faithfulness.
We’re going to take a closer look at this third descriptor and understand what it means for God to be “slow to anger.” There's a popular characterization of God as an angry ruler in the clouds, punishing and striking people down for their sins. But this isn't an accurate depiction of who we know the God of the Bible to be. Though God does get angry, his anger is more nuanced and complex, and it points to his compassion and loyal love.
In Hebrew, the phrase “slow to anger” is pronounced ’erek ’appayim, or literally, “long of nose.” But what does God’s patience have to do with a long nose?
A common biblical Hebrew way to say that someone is angry is “their nose burned hot.” Like in the story of Joseph, when Potiphar thinks that Joseph tried to sleep with his wife, the text says “his nose burned hot" (Genesis 39:19). It’s usually translated “his anger burned.” This is a descriptive image of how our bodies, especially our faces, get hot when we're filled with anger. So in Hebrew, the main words for anger are either “nose” or “heat” or “hot nose.”
This is why a patient person is often described as “long of nose” in the Bible. In other words, it takes a long time for their nose to get hot, like in Proverbs 14:29, which says that a person who has a long nose (or is slow to anger) has great wisdom.
We see God become angry throughout the biblical story, but God doesn’t have a nose or get hot! These are metaphors, using our experience of hot anger to describe how God feels when he witnesses human evil. Just like we would get angry if we saw a child being bullied on the playground, God too gets angry when humans oppress each other and destroy his good world. In the Bible, God’s anger is an expression of his justice and his love for the world. But he’s slow to anger, which means he gives people lots of chances to change their behavior.
A great example of this is in the story of Exodus, when Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites and ordered their baby boys thrown into the waters. God sends Moses to confront Pharaoh and his horrifying actions. Through Moses, God gives Pharaoh ten chances to set the Israelites free. But after the tenth refusal, Pharaoh chases after the Israelites, and God responds by destroying Pharaoh and his entire army in the waters of the sea.
In this act, Pharaoh’s evil is turned back on him. And the text tells us that this is an act of God’s “hot anger.” That’s really intense. But think about it—God wouldn’t be good if he didn’t get angry at Pharaoh’s evil and respond with justice. And notice that God’s anger is expressed by handing Pharaoh over to the consequences of his own decisions.
Throughout the Bible, God's anger is shown in this way—allowing people to experience the consequences of their own actions. We see this as the story of the Israelites continues. For hundreds of years, the Israelites repeatedly betray the God who rescued them from slavery. And though he gives the people many chances to turn back to him and covenant loyalty, they continue giving their allegiance to the gods of other nations.
Each time this happens, we read that “the hot anger of God burned against the Israelites.” But notice what always follows: “God gave them over into the hands of their enemies" (Judges 2:14). Israel wants to serve the gods of other nations, so, in his just anger, God gives them what they want, and those nations eventually defeat Israel.
The Apostle Paul builds on this expression of God's anger in his letter to the Romans (Romans 1:18-32). He says God’s anger is being revealed against human evil, and then he describes what that looks like three times. God hands people over to their destructive desires and decisions, even if it leads to death.
But Paul also says that God is patient, giving people time to come to their senses and change (Romans 2:1-4). Because, remember, God’s anger is a response to human evil, and it’s based on a deeper character trait: his compassion and his loyal love. God is not content to let people sit in their own self-destruction, and ultimately, he's on a mission to rescue his human partners.
This is why Jesus said that he was going to Jerusalem to die as a demonstration of God’s love for his enemies (John 3:16). He would stand in the place of his people, who were choosing self-destruction, and take the consequences of their decisions upon himself. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we see God’s anger at evil and his love for people working together to provide forgiveness and life for a people lost in self-ruin.
So God’s anger in the Bible is really important, but it’s not the end of the story. When God is angry and brings justice, it’s because he’s good. And he remains patient, working out his plan to restore people to his love. And that’s what it means to say that God is “slow to anger.”
Here are some of the most common questions people ask online about this theme.
Where does God call himself slow to anger?
This isn't a phrase buried in the Bible. God's description of himself to Moses becomes the most quoted verse in the entire Hebrew Bible. We take a first look at these verses in this episode.
Why does God get angry at all?
Our second episode tackles the context of Exodus 34 and the narrative of the golden calf. Through this story, we see how God entrusts himself to people and how humanity repeatedly chooses their own way. Hear more in this episode.
How does the Bible talk about anger?
Something about "hot noses?" In this episode, the team considers how the Bible talks about anger and what this tells us about God's depiction as an emotional being in the biblical story. Listen here.
When in the Bible does God first get angry?
Surprisingly, God's anger isn't mentioned at all in the book of Genesis. And the Bible often mentions God's judgment without describing God as being angry. In this episode, the team reviews a familiar story with insight that helps us understand God’s anger and judgment. Click here to listen.
What does God's anger look like?
The Hebrew Bible is filled with passages describing God "turning his face away" or nations being made drink a "cup of wrath." In this episode, we look at these phrases and God's anger with Israel and the nations. Listen here.
Does Jesus talk about wrath?
Many people think about Jesus as being the gracious and merciful counterpart to the angry God of the Hebrew Bible. But that's not true. Jesus talks often about God's judgment, even picking up on much of the language of the Hebrew prophets. Listen to the episode here.
What did Jesus do to God's wrath?
Jesus saw his sacrifice as a substitute for the consequences humanity deserved. Through his death, he confronted the political powers of Rome and the evils of human corruption and dark spiritual forces. Listen to more in this episode.