Wrath of God (in Psalms)
The OT describes God’s attitude toward sin in terms borrowed from the human emotions of anger, indignation, and wrath. However, we are not to think of the wrath of God as irrational, irresponsible action on the part of God, but as manifestation of the aversion to sin that derives from God’s holiness, an element of his character. Biblical literature sees the wrath of God operating as part of the final judgment in the end time, and also in particular historical and natural catastrophes, as well as in personal disasters.
The OT uses a variety of terms to designate God’s wrath. Nahum 1:6 lists ’ap, “anger”; ḥēmâ, “wrath”; ḥărôn, “rage”; and za‘am, “indignation.” Deuteronomy 29:18–28 also provides a catalogue of words and images associated with divine wrath. The expression most frequently used to represent the wrath of God is the noun ’ap, meaning “anger” (Ps 90:7). The noun is also the Hebrew word for “nose” (Amos 4:10), which the ancient Hebrews considered to be the seat of anger. Thus, in God’s wrath “smoke went up from his nostrils” (Ps 18:8). Another synonym for anger (’ap) is ḥēmâ, “rage” or “heat” (Jer 4:4). In addition, at least half a dozen more words are used for the wrath of God (ḥărôn, “rage”; qeṣep, “ire”; ‘ebrâ, “fury”; za‘am; “indignation”; ka‘as, “aggravation”; and za‘ap, “vexation”). God’s wrath is also suggested through metaphors drawn from the vocabulary of flood, famine, and conflagration, or from the language of cursing, devouring, reaping, demolishing, slaughter, refining, military siege, and battle.
While some OT stories convey a picture of God as bordering on cruel caprice (Exod 4:24; 19:21; Judg 13:22), usually God’s wrath is related to deliberate human attempts to thwart his will and purpose. A recurring theme is Israel’s repeated apostasy, the abandonment of the Lord to go after other gods (Deut 13:2, 6, 13). Israel’s rebellion against the kingship and rule of the Lord is the major cause of divine wrath in the OT (Deut 1:26–36; Josh 7:1; 2 Chron 36:15–16; Ps 78:21–22). The destruction of Israel means not only the fearsome experience of encountering the wrath of God (80:4), but also the feeling of being forsaken and rejected by God (60:1–3; 74:1). Nations incur the wrath of God because they oppress God’s people (1 Sam 15:2–3; 28:18; Ps 2:1–6) and practice self-idolatry (Isa 10:5–19; Jer 27:7–14).
The prevalence of injustice led to notions about God’s decisive and climactic intrusion when God’s saving purpose would finally be accomplished. The prophets and apocalyptic writers point toward such a day of the Lord’s wrath (Ps 110:5; Isa 2; Amos 5:18–20). The psalmists invoke this eschatological wrath upon the nations as well as upon apostates in their own community, while they count on their own piety shielding them from the divine wrath in that day (Pss 7:6–8; 11:5–7; 56:7, 9; 79:5–13; 94:1–2, 12–15). Even so, the righteous worshipper is not without anxiety as God’s judgment is anticipated (22:1–21; 30:8–10; 139:1–12, 19–24).
This language of the day of wrath is carried over into the book of Revelation. The wrath of God to be poured over the hostile nations is characterized by OT metaphors. The “cup of wrath” (Pss 69:24; 75:8) appears in Revelation 14:10 and 16:1. The apocalyptic terrors of God’s judgment are portrayed in Revelation 16:4, 6 in terms of the events of the exodus and the plagues that fell on Pharaoh (Pss 78:44; 79:3). Here also is found the judgment doxology “The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (Ps 145:17; Rev 15:3; 16:5).
In summary, the biblical writers view God’s wrath as righteous because it destroys the wickedness that impedes deliverance (Isa 34:2). For that reason, the psalmists yearn for God to apply that wrath (Pss 59:13; 79:6). God’s wrath represents his reaction to evil; God’s basic stance is one of grace (Exod 34:6–7). So there is trust in the grace and power of God to bring deliverance in the end time (Pss 17:15; 22:4; 42:2; Rev 22:4).
- Dahlberg, B. T. “Wrath of God.” In vol. 4, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by G. A. Buttrick. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962.
- Herion, Gary A. “Wrath of God.” In vol. 6, Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
- Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Theology of the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1986.
- Zenger, Erich. A God of Vengeance? Understanding the Psalms of Divine Wrath. Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
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|—James H. Waltner|