The Scriptures use various terms to express God's emotions that are in contrast to his love for, pleasure in, and satisfaction with his people. In the Old Testament at least six terms are used to express his negative reactions to humanity, particularly to his covenant people. These terms, all of which express varied shades or degrees of wrath, anger, displeasure, or vexation, are the following: anph [@:n'a] (to be angry), zaaph [@;[;z] and derivatives (to be wroth, displeased, sad); hemah [h'mej] (indignation, anger, wrath); kaas [s;['K] (to be angry, wrathful, indignant, vexed, grieved); ebrah [h'r.b, (rage, wrath); qasaph [@;['q] (to be displeased, angry, wroth); saneh [aEn'f] (to hate). In the New Testament there are more than twenty references to the anger, wrath, or vengeance (orge [ojrghv]) of God and a few references to indignation and displeasure (achthos). These terms are to be considered anthropopathic expressions; human terms, however, cannot give the full meaning of the infinite and sovereign God's emotional experiences. As his love is infinitely incomprehensible, so are his displeasure, hate, anger, wrath, and vengeance. There is good reason indeed for the writer to the Hebrews to warn sinful people that it "is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" ( Heb 10:31 ).
In order to understand what the Scriptures reveal concerning the anger and wrath of God, it is necessary to consider his character, the contexts in which they are spoken of, and with whom God is displeased, angry, or wroth.
God is holy; he totally and completely distances himself from sin, evil, corruption, and the resultant filth and guilt. He maintains his purity and rejects, fights against, and destroys that which would offend, attack, or undo his holiness and love. Hence, God's anger and wrath must always be seen in relation to his maintaining and defending his attributes of love and holiness, as well as his righteousness and justice. The emotion or passion that moves God to this maintaining and defending is expressed by the terms "displeasure, " "indignation, " "anger, " and "wrath." A consequence of his wrath is vengeance, punishment, and death.
The wrath of God has been revealed throughout the entire history of humanity. It was implied when Adam was warned he would die if he disbelieved and disobeyed God ( Gen 2:17 ) and when he revealed that Satan's head would be crushed ( Gen 3:15 ) because God's loving character, will, and purposes were challenged by Satan and Adam and Eve. God revealed the execution of his wrath when he drove Adam and Eve from Paradise ( Gen 3:24-25 ). God revealed his displeasure when, placing a curse on Cain, he banished him ( Gen 4:11 ). When he destroyed the cosmos by the flood God demonstrated the results of his grief and wrath with his image-bearer (Gen. 6-8).
The revelation of God's wrath was clearly demonstrated by means of the plagues of Egypt and the destruction of Pharaoh's army ( Exod 15:7 ). His anger and wrath also arose against Israel with whom he had covenanted when they worshiped the golden calf ( Exod 32:11 ), and when they rebelled after hearing the report of ten of the twelve spies ( Numbers 14:11-12 Numbers 14:23 ; Heb 3:10-11 ; 4:3 ). Moses warned of the consequences of God's wrath for Israel if as a people they broke the covenant ( Deut 11:17 ; Deuteronomy 29:23 Deuteronomy 29:28 ); because God's love was offended they would experience famine, defeat, exile, and death. The Chronicler referred to God's wrath repeatedly because Israel, God's covenant people, ignored, rejected, and spurned his love, his will, and their life with God-given blessings. The psalmists referred to the wrath of God against nations ( Psalm 2:5 ; Psalms 59:5 Psalms 59:13 ; 78:49 ; 79:6 ), against personal enemies ( Psalm 55:3 ), against the covenant people for their sin ( Psalm 89:46 ; 92:7 ; 95:11 ), and against the psalmists themselves ( Psalm 88:7 ). The prophets likewise prophesied concerning the wrath of God executed upon nations for their hatred of and destruction wreaked on the covenant people ( Isa 13:13 ; 14:6 ). The anger of God was demonstrated in the exile of Israel ( Isa 60:11 ).
The wrath of God that the New Testament speaks of is to be expressed in judgments on a wicked, rebellious covenant people ( Matt 3:7 ; Luke 3:7 ), and upon those who refuse to believe in and accept Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world ( John 3:36 ). Paul repeatedly warns about the wrath of God ( Rom 1:18 ; 2:5 ), from which people are to be saved ( Rom 5:9 ). All people are under wrath ( Eph 2:3 ), and the only way to escape this wrath, which is sure to be in full and fierce force in the judgment day, is to believe in Jesus Christ who bore the curse of the covenant and endured the wrath of God when he was crucified. This same Christ will execute divine wrath and vengeance to its fullest degree in judgment day ( Rev 6:16-17 ).
Gerard Van Groningen
Bibliography. A. T. Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament; R. V. G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God; R. White, Jr., ZPEB, 5:990-95.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Wrath of God'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".