I am frequently struck by the strange ways people talk and feel about the wrath of God. Especially Christians! This is one of our best doctrines, one we should be celebrating, one that should get real traction in the world. But somehow we’re not, and it doesn’t. I’ve written about it before, but I’m going to keep chipping away at this.
I was struck lately reading about David’s troubles in 2 Sam 24.
David answered Gad, “I have great anxiety. Please, let us fall into the LORD’S hands because His mercies are great, but don’t let me fall into the hands of man.” 2 Sam. 24:14
Here is a verse, I think, to shape our thinking about the wrath of God into a biblical-theological shape. David has led the nation into sin, and there is to be disciplinary action. Which sort would David prefer for Israel? He gets three options, each more terrible than the others. No easy choice! Not surprising then that David says,”I have great anxiety.”
Here’s why David’s words should shape our thinking about the wrath of God:
Most of the world is and has always been seriously, deeply worried about things that threaten their lives and wellbeing. If you’re not, then you’re living in a little insulated bubble that’s probably artificial, and can’t last long. Trouble and anxiety is a common denominator of human experience. When David says, “I have great anxiety”, he speaks like Everyman.
Things are not right in David’s world. There is sin, and God will not put up with it. There must be change – painful change. David’s choice is this: he has to fall into someone’s hands, either God’s or man’s. Either way there will be wrath.
Our world has been plagued by strife since the beginning. Violence, bloodshed, war, terror. The weak come under the power of the strong, and are exploited, mistreated, terrorised or killed. These are the things of every day. For us humans, wrath is a given. The wrath of man: merciless, heartless, senseless.
David is offered an alternative to the wrath of man. And this question of an alternative is the big question for everyone who suffers at the hands of man. Is there any way out of this? Is there any alternative to this living hell? For left to itself, the wrath of man knows pity and no end.
There is one alternative for David: the wrath of God. And he grasps at the opportunity. He knows it is far preferable to the wrath of man. For God is kind. “His mercies are great”. You could never say that about man!
And this is the alternative facing all who live in a sinful world. Will we be left to suffer this wrath forever, or is anyone able to do anything to stop it? Either there’s someone who cares enough and is strong enough to stop the violence and take out the evil men and the evil everywhere – or there isn’t. In the past, people believed there was: they believed in the wrath of God. More recently, they’ve tended not to.
Which would you prefer? The wrath of man or the wrath of God?
There’s anxiety either way: something to worry about on both sides. Which worry would you choose?
The Christian gospel says that God is such a God. He hates what our world has become and will not put up with it. He will come in awesome anger to take down all those who abuse and harm and trample the weak. He will overthrow all the systems that entrench violence and injustice and oppression. He will smash the lot of them, grind them so fine they will float off in the breeze and never be seen again. Then the world will be a safe place for little people to live in at last. The meek will inherit the earth. That’s the wrath of God. The wrath of God says, things will not be like this forever.
It’s either that, or else, things are going to stay as they are. The wrath of God, or the wrath of man.
And things staying as they are is a dream which only the super-privileged have about their little bubble world. It’s a dream for those who’ve closed their hearts to the suffering multitudes. It’s the oppressor’s dream: that he’ll get away with it, that there’ll be no reckoning. But for most people who’ve ever lived, things staying the same is not a dream but a nightmare.
So you pays your money and you takes your choice. Which would you prefer?
Me, I’m with David. I’ll go for the wrath of God every time. Because he’s kind. Whatever you do, God, don’t leave us to ourselves down here. It doesn’t take much to turn us into devils. Many have already turned. Don’t leave things the way they are.
In fact, where no one is concerned about the wrath of God, you can be sure in that place pretty soon everyone will be terrified of the wrath of man. Look at Soviet Russia as a massive example.
It would be nice if the alternative to the wrath of man was something soft and fluffy. Like ‘being nice’. But it isn’t. Things are serious down here, too serious for that sort of wishful thinking. There’s going to be trouble ahead. Only question is which sort. Only two options. Man’s wrath is what there is for most people. God’s wrath is the other option. And his mercies are great. There’s hope there.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the innocent one who is killed unjustly, the suffering righteous man. As he dies, Jesus says ‘into your hands I commit my spirit’ – in that moment he makes the ultimate choice on behalf of us all. Jesus faced the wrath of man, and was crucified but it, and chose not to fight it himself. He’d trust his Father to fix it. At the cross, Jesus ‘entrusted himself to him who judges justly.’ He ‘left room for wrath’ – not the wrath of man, but the wrath of God. He chose to break the cycle. He chose, not things going on as they are, but death. Death – and resurrection. Jesus, like David, chose for his people the wrath of God. Thank God he did.
God’s wrath is not something to play down in our God-talk. It’s better than that. It’s our only hope. And there’s about five billion people out there who are going to like the sound of this.“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”