It may seem like these pairs are chalk and cheese, but they are in fact two sides of the same coin. Throughout Scripture the anger of God is never seen as distinct from his love, and the grace of God is never separated from his judgment.
They belong together, and are all of a piece. But so many people today – including many biblically illiterate believers – somehow think that God can only be one or the other, but not both simultaneously. They really need to go back to their Bibles.
We see these running in tandem all throughout God’s Word. Plenty of texts can be examined here, but let me limit myself to just one biblical book: Jeremiah. In this book we find these themes stated constantly. Warnings of coming judgment are mingled with pictures of the broken heart of God – and of Jeremiah.
Passages dealing with God’s anger with wayward Israel also exhibit God’s great love for his people. Any attempt to separate these two divine elements or attributes simply cannot be done. So let me examine some of those portions which are relevant here.
There are many commentaries on this important book which can be drawn in here. I have around 16 of them, but let me appeal to just one, which happens to be the newest I have, by Chris Wright. His 450-page commentary for the Bible Speaks Today series has just appeared, and like his earlier commentaries, it is a very good piece of work.
So I will just have Wright with me as I discuss a few passages in this Old Testament book. In the introduction to his commentary he has a section on “the passion of God”. He discusses the notion of the impassibility of God, but that is a much larger discussion which I will not enter into. But for those who are interested in this, I do speak to it here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/07/a-review-of-god-is-impassible-and-impassioned-toward-a-theology-of-divine-emotion-by-rob-lister/
He begins his discussion this way:
Not for nothing has Jeremiah been known down the centuries as ‘the weeping prophet’. But whose tears? … In many of those texts the words of the prophet and the words of God blend together so closely that it is difficult to be sure who the weeping speaker is. It is not merely that Jeremiah speaks God’s words; he also feels God’s feelings. The prophet embodies the message to such an extent that his whole person and being – thoughts, feelings, words, actions – vibrate with the whole range of its emotional pitch and tone. And grief is only one of those emotions. The most obvious and sustained emotion that we will encounter is anger.
He notes how divine anger of course differs in many respects from mere human anger. So what sort of anger is this?
The anger of God is the anger of suffering love. It is anger within a deep relationship that he passionately cares for. It is the anger, sodden with grief and pain, that wrestles with profound love in the heart of a betrayed husband or a rejected father. . . . When love is betrayed, there is a perfectly appropriate response of jealousy and anger – not blind rage but open-eyed rejection and repulsion of whatever or whoever has invaded the relationship and threatened its peace and joy.
It is strange that some theologians and preachers see something incompatible or irreconcilable in the Bible’s portrayal of God’s anger and God’s love. Anger and love can co-exist simultaneously in a human heart; why not in God’s?… If God were not angry at the evil that destroys human life, could he be said to love us? If God did not love us so much, why would he get angry against all that threatens to destroy us, including our own sinful rebellion and folly?
This holy anger is never independent of divine love:
Again and again you will notice as we work through the challenging chapters to follow that outbursts of anger dissolve quickly into sobbing tears, or the wistfulness of longing love. God pleads with the people again and again to turn and change, so that judgment that he and Jeremiah could foresee need not fall.
So let’s turn to some of these passages. Consider Jer. 3:19-20: “I myself said, ‘How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation. I thought you would call me “Father” and not turn away from following me. But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,’ declares the Lord.”
“The lament of verse 20 switches the metaphor back to marriage. Jeremiah feels the pathos of God as the betrayal of both parental and marital love. The love between parent and child and between husband and wife comprise the most profound depths and sublime heights of which human affections are capable. For that very reason they have limitless capacity for causing pain when they are abused or betrayed. The heart of God is torn by the behaviour of an ungrateful delinquent son and an unfaithful promiscuous wife. Once again we must hear the language of God’s judgment through the tears of God’s grief.”
Consider also Jer. 11:14-15: “Do not pray for this people or offer any plea or petition for them, because I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress. What is my beloved doing in my temple as she, with many others, works out her evil schemes? Can consecrated meat avert your punishment?”
The pain in the heart of God even as he speaks such words is felt in the next line. For who are these people? My beloved! The word is a term of special affection. . . . To be angry with someone you love is extraordinarily painful, especially if the anger is caused by perceived betrayal. But the two emotions are so closely intertwined because each is a legitimate dimension of the other. That is why, when we read so much in Jeremiah of the boiling anger of God, we must see it coming out of a heart filled with love, longing, grief and pain. In his anger, God does not cease to be the God who is love.
And one last passage, Jer. 23:9-12:
Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a strong man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and his holy words. The land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land lies parched and the pastures in the wilderness are withered. The prophets follow an evil course and use their power unjustly. “Both prophet and priest are godless; even in my temple I find their wickedness,” declares the Lord. “Therefore their path will become slippery; they will be banished to darkness and there they will fall. I will bring disaster on them in the year they are punished,” declares the Lord.
The true prophet groans and travails over pending judgment on God’s people. Because he truly loves his people – unlike the false prophets – he will speak of judgment to come. But that does not mean it will not break his heart. And this is true of Yahweh as well. Says Wright:
The profound physical and emotional disturbance that Jeremiah goes through is linked to him being the spokesman for the Lord and his holy words (not just to his reaction to the false prophets). We have seen the evidence for this repeatedly throughout the book. Speaking God’s truth cost Jeremiah dearly at every level of his humanity. By contrast, the other prophets thrived on popularity with their easy and pain-free messages.
No wonder so few people take up the mantle of a prophet. It hurts greatly. The prophet, like his God, loves deeply, and is therefore going to hurt deeply. God loves his people more than we will know. And that means he will hurt, and be angry, more than we will know.
All these things go together. They do for God and they also should for his people.
(For Australians, this commentary is available at Koorong Books.)