The Wrath of God, the Agony of God

Bible text: Hosea 11:1-11

Years ago, I taught a course on the Old Testament prophets to an adult Sunday school class in Dallas. When the series ended, one woman came up to me and said she had hated every moment of it. All the passages in Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and the other prophets expressing the deep wrath of God against sinning Israel had appalled her, she said. She could not believe that God hated people so much.

It can be grim reading going through portions of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and their fellow prophets. They do not paint pretty pictures of the future facing Israel. Their pronouncements should alarm us. But was this woman right that they present a God who hates people so much?

If we are honest, we cannot ignore the fact that there is a lot of talk about the wrath of God in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and even in the words of Jesus. Just this morning I was reading a passage where Jesus pronounces woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, because the kingdom of God has come near them, and they have rejected it (Luke 10:10-15).

But I do not hear it to be the message of the Bible that God’s wrath reveals God’s hatred of people. God’s anger is real, but it is directed to the actions sinful humanity does. And I think that if we try to see things from God’s viewpoint, we must admit that wrathful anger can be the appropriate emotional response.

God created a world that he proclaims very good (Genesis 1:31). In fact, images of earth taken from the Apollo flights show the earth as a glowing jewel in the sky. It is an artwork of surpassing beauty. And it teems with life, sustained by all the carefully calibrated systems in nature that maintain that life and beauty.

Humanity, however, like a willful toddler knocking down a tower of blocks, has defaced, disordered, and destroyed this beautiful work of art. This is not just true for the physical environment, but even more true for the delicacy of human relationships. We have turned the impulse to love into abuse, exploitation, and injustice.

Faced with the willful or malicious ruination of any cherished creation we have created, anyone of us would naturally feel wrathful anger towards those responsible. How much more must that be true for God. We cannot believe in a God who upholds justice if we deny and ignore the reality of his anger. And the Bible, especially those disturbing prophets in the Old Testament, means to make sure we cannot ignore the reality of that anger in the thoughtless lives we live.

Our own emotional make-up means that we can and should expect that God will respond by lashing out in white-hot anger at those who are destroying the beauty and goodness of his creation. Amos captures that sentiment well with his book’s opening words:
The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
and the top of Carmel dries up.
[Amos 1:2]

We expect God in his legitimate rage to turn to ferocious violence to wreak revenge. And the Bible seems to be aware that that is always an option for God. The story of Noah’s flood represents one possible divine response. Except that that very story shows that a violent cleansing of evil through a kind of genocide does not solve the problem. For the source of evil lies in the human heart, and any kind of external or social cleansing does not touch that inner spring of evil.

If God resorts to such violent revenge, he betrays his own character of love. That is the remarkable insight we find in Hosea, chapter 11. Hosea, like Amos, is full of descriptions of God’s impending wrath on Israel. Israel’s national existence is about to be extinguished. The people who survive the Assyrian invasion will go into exile. They ultimately become the ten lost tribes of Israel.

Yet in chapter 11, we hear God cry out in agony at this prospect. Addressing Israel by the tribal name, Ephraim, he says:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
My compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger.
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to destroy.
[Hosea 11:8-9]

The alternative to God’s wrath is the agony God feels over the terrible fate that awaits his people. His anger is not motivated by a hatred of his people but by an anger over what they have done. Buried behind the wrath lies this love in agony.

This suggests to me that God experiences a deep, deep agony over his spoiled creation. And this suggests to me that God realizes that the answer to evil in the world is not obliterating destruction. Some other solution must be found.

Here is where I believe Hosea sets the stage for the New Testament. For the New Testament suggests that God moves through his agony to the incarnation. God chooses to enter his creation as a human being and to die in agony on the cross so that God’s love for his creation—and for each one of us—may win out over his wrath.

Humanity is the beneficiary of this God who absorbs into himself the pain, evil, and suffering of the world and transforms them into wholeness.

3 thoughts on “The Wrath of God, the Agony of God

  1. Bob Wallace


    I object to your use of the word “revenge” in describing God’s reaction in Hosea, Chapter 11. I define “revenge” as an uncontrolled over-reaction to an offense. If my definition of that word is correct, God could never exhibit “revenge”.

    On the positive side, I love reading your insights on the Bible. I continue to learn a lot from you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. And keep up this good work. It is desperately needed.

    Bob W.


    1. Thanks, Bob, for your feedback. I am glad you enjoy reading my reflections.
      I don’t use the word “revenge” in the same way you do. I think of revenge as the infliction of pain or punishment on another person who has injured or harmed you. Revenge in my thinking works as a tit for tat response. You harm me. Then in return I harm you. One may engage in revenge with uncontrolled, hot emotion or with cold, calculated malice. But the heart of revenge is the tit for tat response. In this sense, I think God can be tempted to exact punishment on those who harm and destroy his creation. But the whole point of my entry is that if God engages in revengeful anger, he denies his own very character as God.
      So it raises the question: How does God respond to the evil that human beings inflict on his creation? That is where Hosea is so insightful. He finds God responding in a way in which God absorbs the agony within himself. In a sense, God suffers for us so that we can be released from sin, suffering, and pain. It is this feature of God’s character that I see as standing as the sanction behind Jesus’s admonition in the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Why does Jesus counsel this? Because as the verse goes on: “…so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” We are to model our response to our enemies on how God responds to his.
      The more I grow older, the more I have come to believe that forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian life, not only in terms of God’s forgiving others, but also in terms of our forgiving others. And forgiveness involves the reversal of revenge. In forgiveness, we may not be restored to a fully harmonious relationship with someone who has harmed us, but we give up the right and the desire to cause them harm in return. Forgiveness may not change the other person, but it liberates us for life. At the heart of the Biblical message is a witness to a forgiving God, a forgiving God in the Old Testament and in the New.
      I hope this better explains my use of the word in my discussion. Thanks so much for the feedback. Comments like yours remind me to always be conscious of the associations that the words I use have.


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