Wrath of God in Isaiah
Though it may prompt discomfort for some, the “wrath of God” is a significant biblical concept in both the Old and New Testaments. In Isaiah, God’s anger is a prominent theme, serving to emphasize the sovereignty of God within and beyond Israel, particularly in relation to the experience of exile. Here divine anger serves a significant purpose, to discipline Israel as well as to express guidance and correction; indeed, in the book of Isaiah, God constantly guides and corrects his people (Macgregor: 59–60).
A number of terms in the Hebrew Bible carry the basic idea of “anger,” including ’np, z‘m, z‘p, ḥrh, yḥm, ‘br, and qṣp. The noun ’ap (from ’np) alone occurs twenty-seven times in Isaiah, many of these attesting to God’s anger. As is often the case elsewhere in the OT (cf. Jer 52:3 // 2 Kings 24:20), God’s wrath is associated with exile in Isaiah. The metaphor of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, for example, concludes with the beloved vowing to remove the hedge of protection and allowing the vineyard to be devoured. After a description of what has gone wrong, the result is announced: houses and vineyards will be demolished (5:8–10). This prediction is then explained: “For all this his [i.e., the LORD’s] anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still” (Isa 5:25). Subsequent passages further outline the drastic changes Israel is to experience, with the same phrase appearing four more times (9:12, 17, 21; 10:4).
Reference to God’s wrath is significant because it affirms God’s sovereignty despite impressions to the contrary. In the polytheistic context of the ancient Near East, where a plethora of gods were worshipped and many were linked to specific peoples or empires, people commonly assumed that the gods of a victorious nation were stronger than the gods of the peoples they had conquered. Isaiah claims something radically different: the Assyrians do not emerge victorious over Israel because their gods are more powerful, but because the Lord uses Assyria to discipline Israel! This is emphatically stated in chapter 10, where Isaiah identifies Assyria as “the rod of my anger” (v. 5) and then clarifies that it would be a mistake to confuse the instrument of God’s wrath (Assyria the ax) with the lumberjack who wields the ax (the Lord; vv. 15–16). Indeed, God will even punish Assyria for its arrogance (10:5–15). This understanding that the exile reflects the Lord’s punishing God’s own people is not limited to Isaiah but is a very significant concept for the prophets in general.
Thus, the “wrath of God” provides the avenue to make the remarkable assertion that Israel’s God is sovereign over all nations, and uses them to enact the divine will. The audacity of this claim in a polytheistic context is brought to the surface when the Assyrian emissary mocks Israel for thinking that their God will save them, given that Assyria has already conquered many other peoples without such interference (chap. 36). Isaiah subverts this logic by rejecting the idea of different nations with tribal gods in favor of the Holy One of Israel, who controls even foreign powers.
Nevertheless God’s wrath does not have the last word in Isaiah. Chapter 12 already points to a time in an undetermined future when the tables will be turned: “You will say on that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me” (12:1, emphasis added). This statement reverses the repeated refrain identified previously and replaces it with a word of comfort “on that day.” In effect, Israel will go through a period of punishment, discipline, or even refinement, but hope remains that comfort will eventually come. Interestingly, this progression is reflected in the structure of the book itself. In the initial chapters “comfort” is in short supply, but it becomes more prominent later; indeed, the two occurrences of this term in Isaiah 40:1 matches its number of appearances in the first 39 chapters of the book (Isa 12:1; 22:4)! Isaiah 40 proclaims that the “day” has finally arrived: the period of God’s anger is over, and a new day has come. The people will experience a new exodus, only this time from Babylon rather than Egypt (Isa 43). God has not forsaken Israel, and a remnant shall return to the land.
Discomfort with the idea of God’s wrath sometimes prompts people to contrast the “God of wrath” of the OT with the “God of love” in the NT. It is worth identifying two common misconceptions that give rise to such a view. First, while it is true that anger is often attributed to God in the Old Testament, this is not the only or even the dominant perspective in these documents. God’s wrath often responds to human sin and injustice, particularly in the context of God’s covenant with Israel (cf. the Decalogue in Exod 20:1–17 and Deut 5:6–21 and many other expressions of the covenant in the law). Blessings or curses are the consequences of obedience or disobedience to the law (Deut 28). At the same time, many passages qualify God’s anger and place it within a broader perspective. For instance, the Lord’s self-description in Exodus 34:6–7 identifies God as “slow to anger,” with steadfast love (ḥesed) extending to a thousand generations, while punishment only lasts for three or four. God’s persistent care and merciful response to the people’s cry, despite their repeated rejection and rebellion, proves central in Nehemiah 9. The book of Jonah extends God’s mercy beyond Israel to concern for Nineveh, the hated capital city of Assyria. Against Jonah’s explicit desire, God accepts Nineveh’s repentance and foregoes punishment. In fact, it is Jonah’s knowledge of God’s character as one who is “merciful and slow to anger” that initially prompts him to flee in the opposite direction, presumably so that Nineveh would not be delivered from divine anger (chaps. 3–4)! Thus, while it is true that God’s wrath is a significant element within the portrayal of God in the OT, it is inaccurate to describe “the God of the OT” uniformly in this way.
Second, God’s wrath is not unique to the Old Testament but proves significant in the NT as well. For instance orgē, the common Greek term used for anger or wrath in the NT, appears in connection with God in each of the four Gospels, including Jesus’ judgment parables (cf. Matt 18:34; 22:7) and passages about his rejection (cf. John 3:36). It is also a significant concept for Paul; orgē is linked to salvation in 1 Thessalonians (1:10) and is a major theme in Romans (cf. 1:18). The term is also used in Revelation, including the remarkable concept of the “wrath of the Lamb” (Rev 6:16).
The preceding sampling of instances where God is linked to love in the OT and wrath in the NT could be multiplied; these examples warn against simplistic characterizations of either Testament. The root of this issue, however, lies in a negative view of the wrath of God; it is worth considering how the “wrath of God” can function as a significant theological resource rather than as a problem needing to be solved.
In both the OT and the NT, the wrath of God is a theologically rich concept that reflects an understanding of a God who cares, hears, and responds to the plight of those facing oppression and tribulation. As such, the “wrath of God” is closely linked to God’s mercy, where wrath represents the fierce face of love, in which God intervenes against certain powers, frequently on behalf of their victims (cf. Exod 22:21–24). Whether reflected in the immediate threat of national exile (Isaiah) or in a delayed end-times judgment (Paul), the “wrath of God” reflects more than the inevitable consequences of actions turning against themselves. Rather, this concept represents the caring attention of God for world and people.
In the New Testament as well as the Old, God requires commitment and obedience, shows persistent care and patience in the face of disobedience and even rebellion, but also holds people to account. God’s wrath functions as an energizing force in God’s character, a force precipitated by compassion rather than driven by retribution. The focus of this energy is to make wrongs right and to generate change toward what is good. God’s wrath—though at times expressed in acts of judgment and destruction—is ultimately not inconsistent with God’s kindness or mercy but rather functions as an extension of it. A healthy respect for God’s wrath is particularly important for those who live within the military and economic equivalents of Assyria and Babylon.
Invitation to Comment
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- Macgregor, George H. C. The New Testament Basis of Pacifism and The Relevance of an Impossible Ideal. Rev. ed. Nyack, NY: Fellowship Publications, 1954.
|—Ivan D. Friesen|