Rehabilitating the Old Testament (4)
Why does God always seem to be angry?
There is little doubt that much of the Old Testament is taken up with the anger or wrath of God. In the passage read for us earlier, Moses is arguing with God and pleading with God not to be angry with His people (Exodus 32 : 7 – 14). Throughout the Book of Joshua, God’s anger is kindled against the Israelites because of their unfaithfulness and tendency to worship idols and follow other gods. The anger of God is seen in events which bring misfortune, disaster and destruction to the People of God. There is always a direct relationship between disobedience and the anger of God in the Old Testament. Today people still say “What have I done to deserve this?” In the Book of Judges the same pattern emerges “Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them out of Egypt.” (Judges 2:11&12). “They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them.” (12b-14). The Book of Judges, however, is about how God raised up heroes and leaders to save the Israelites from annihilation at the hands of their enemies. God’s anger is therefore corrective anger and not destructive anger.
King Saul lost his faith in God and lost his way spiritually. He began seeking advice from spiritualists, mediums and clairvoyants. He lost in battle and was killed. King David was an absolute monarch but when he arranged to have Uriah left isolated in battle so that he would be killed so that he could have Uriah’s wife Bathsheba for himself, the prophet Nathan poured out God’s anger against him. Thus says the Lord - “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from you house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own. Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you.” (2 Samuel 12: 10&11). Note again, that is the deliberate disobedience of human beings who ought to know better which causes the anger of God to rise. Actions have consequences. Bad actions have bad consequences. These are interpreted as God’s anger. God is not arbitrary or despotic. There are rules laid down, communicated, known and accepted. When they are then broken, there is no excuse except human sinfulness and frailty.
The Psalms are replete with God’s anger. “Serve the Lord with fear and trembling.. for his wrath can flare up in a moment” (Psalm 2:11&12). “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath” (38:1). “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name” (79:6). Yet the large majority of the Psalms are about personal faith, devout prayer, praise of God and trust in God’s goodness and mercy. “Praise the Lord O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfied you with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”(103:1-5).
The two themes of judgement and deliverance are taken together throughout the writings of the great 8thC BC prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem. However, more than 200 years later, the prophet Jeremiah had a more critical view of events and affairs. “Take warning O Jerusalem, or I will turn away from you and make your land desolate so that no-one can live in it” (6:8). “Since they have rejected the word of the Lord what kind of wisdom do they have?” (8:9b). “Peace, peace,” they say when there is no peace” (8:11). “We must leave our land because our houses are in ruins” (9:19c). But Jeremiah also looks forward to Christianity when he speaks of a new Covenant not carved out on stone tablets, but carved out in the hearts of men and women (31:31f). Even in the Old Testament, God’s anger is never final and there is always a way back. God’s anger results from human sin and wrongdoing and betrayal of our side of the spiritual bargain.
Our models of strict and demanding parents seem to be based on the portrait of God in the Old Testament. Did I say ‘strict and demanding parents’? Do you know any? I was brought up with a balance of freedom and discipline and many of us here perhaps the same. But strict parenthood exists. You may have heard Billy Connolly talk about his abusive father. ‘Can I have a bike Daddy’. ‘A bike – I’ll bike ye’. It seems to us that there is less authority in parents today. I got the belt at school on one occasion – I thought totally unjustified I may add – an appeal by the teacher to my better nature would have produced a much better result. There is a much safer environment in primary schools today than there ever was for our generation. But it does seem that in our secondary schools there is compromised respect, authority and discipline and all pupils suffer from this. Minority agendas rule. The tail wags the dog.
In the New Testament Jesus brought life, light and love to the world in a new and hitherto unparalleled way. He did lots of positive things for people to actually display God’s loving nature over and against the angry God of Jewish history. And yet Jesus warned severely against taking Him lightly or ignoring Him or rejecting Him. He spoke quite a lot about hell and judgement. Jesus was not a bleeding heart liberal, politically correct, non-judgemental social worker or ineffectual preacher or teacher.
Neither was Paul. He told his protege Timothy ‘ I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry’ (2 Timothy 4 : 1-5). Christianity deals with the most important thing in life – our relationship with God. Christianity is not weak or mealy-mouthed. It is tough on sin and tough on the causes of sin. But it also offers saving, redemption, new beginnings, ways back, health, healing, restoration of relationships, peace of heart and mind, joy and happiness of heart at its most fulfilling.
Are we left then with some sort of schizophrenia at the heart of the Bible? Is God somehow divided? The answer is ‘No’. Martin Luther, the great reformer, made a spiritual pilgrimage from great fear of God to discovering the love and grace of God. The hymn writer put the issue clearly “To them that seek thee thou art good, to them that find thee, all in all…Glad when thy gracious smile we see, blest when our faith can hold thee fast” (CH4 662). To become a real and true Christian is to pass from fear and doubt into the peace and love of God’s personal presence to you. The saints of Christian history did not live in continuous spiritual joy and happiness. Most knew struggle, suffering, loneliness, rejection and sometimes what appeared to them as the distance of God. They persevered and there came a day when they passed through the spiritual desert into the beautiful meadows with the trees and rivers and singing birds.
The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible and it is very judgemental. At its best it warns Christians not to backslide and at its worst, it speaks of eternal rejection and suffering and the second death of the soul which leaves the physical body when we die and leave this earthly life. The vision of the new world, the new creation, the city of Jerusalem is only for the faithful and the good, true and pure. We cannot have it both ways. God must be different from us and God must have something to give us that we do not ourselves possess. We are not divine creatures although New Agers like to think and say so. We might all want to think that it will be all right for everyone in the end – but I myself do not believe that. Christianity is not folk religion. Big Wullie will not be playing centre half for God in an eternal Townhead Park. Senga will not be blasting out the karaoke machine in the Bunnet and Thistle ‘up there’. The world cannot be saved by having nothing to judge its conduct by. The doctrine that ‘anything goes and nothing matters’ leaves it open for the most terrible of human abuses to occur and they have done throughout history in China, Russia and Nazi Germany to name only three.
“The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” says Proverbs 1:7. Reverence and respect are meant rather than a negative and cringing terror. God-fearing people have become great in all areas of human discovery and experience. But in Christianity “perfect love casts out fear” says 1 John 4:18. Christians discovered unbroken friendship with God through Jesus Christ. Many people who have attended church for years have never had that personal experience. You should know the love of God in your heart. Many Church of Scotland folks are not sure if God loves them or if they are saved. And you should. You need to be born again.
As part of the human condition we have a lot to be afraid of. Our human lifestyles contradict what we know God wants and expects of us. We have a huge capacity for self-destruction and self-annihilation. There is terrible poverty and injustice throughout the world. We are never free from the threat of megalomaniac dictators. No generation has lived without fear. But as Christians we do not associate that fear with God. We may conclude that if we are determined to self-destruct, then we will get our deserts. We may even agree with God that our collective life is a disgrace in modern Scotland. We may fear for the future of our planet and the human race. But – let us not be slow to acknowledge that it is not God who is wanting. In Jesus Christ we have been given everything necessary for our peace, happiness and fulfilment as human beings.
If we make a mess of it – we reap the consequences. In the midst of the mess we have made, we can still call on God. If we do so, He will never turn us away. That is Christianity’s exclusive contribution to human understanding.