Most readers of the Bible have noticed numerous references to the anger of God. Judging from some of these passages, it would seem that God is at least sometimes excessively angry. He says, “A fire is kindled in My anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell” (Deuteronomy 32:22). “And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger, and in fury, and in great wrath” (Jeremiah 21:5). In may seem that His anger is vicious, more than the offense would call for. One time the children of Israel were complaining, and “it displeased the Lord,…and His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burnt among them and consumed” some of them (Numbers 11:1). In some cases His anger even seems to harm the innocent: “My wrath shall become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless” (Exodus 22:24).
God Is Merciful
In contrast with the teachings about God’s anger are the teachings about His mercy. We are told, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6). He is “good, ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy …full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering” (Psalm 86:5,15). “The Lord is longsuffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression.” (Numbers 14:18). “He has not dealt with us according to our sins…for as the heavens are far above the earth, so great is His mercy” (Psalm 103:10,11).
This picture of God as merciful and loving is quite a contrast to the picture of Him as vengeful and fierce. If these were all the teachings we had, we might suppose that He alternates between the opposites of wrath and mercy: condemning one moment, redeeming the next. “In My wrath I struck you, but in My favor I have had mercy on you” (Isaiah 60:10). “He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1). “Many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath” (Psalm 78:38).
The view of God as fluctuating and even capricious does not take into account all the teachings about His mercy. For there are dozens of passages which speak of God’s mercy as enduring, constant, never ceasing. “His mercy endures for ever” (2 Chronicles 5:13, Psalms 100:5, 118:29, 135:3). “The goodness of God endures continually” (Psalm 52:1). “My lovingkindness I will not take away from him, nor suffer My faithfulness to fail. My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips” (Psalm89:33). The Lord promises that there will never be a time when He is not loving and merciful to you. “As I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be angry with you nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but My kindness shall not depart from you neither shall the covenant of My peace be removed, says the Lord who has mercy on you” (Isaiah 54:9).
Now some people might try to explain this apparent contradiction by saying that the Lord is constantly merciful to good people, but that He takes vengeance on those who rebel against Him. But the fact is that the Lord is merciful to everyone, all the time, in everything He does. “He is kind to the unthankful and to the evil” (Luke 6:35). “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:45). “The Lord is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:7).
How We Think Of God
If the Lord is always merciful to everyone, then He can never be angry and vengeful. In God Himself there is “no variation nor shadow of turning” (James 1:17). Yet He appears in a variety of ways according to the spiritual state of the individual. “With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful; with a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless; with the pure You will show Yourself pure; and with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd” (2 Samuel 22:20; Psalm 18:25).
It almost seems as if God’s actions towards each of us depend on our actions toward God and others. If you forgive others, He will forgive you; if you do not forgive others, He will not forgive you (Matthew 6:15; 18:35). If you draw near to God, He will draw near to you (James 4:8). If you forget Him, He will forget you (Hosea 4:6). If you forsake Him, He will forsake you (2 Chronicles 15:2). And apparently, when people act with vengeance, they can expect vengeance from God (Ezekiel 25:15,16).
It is as if each kind of person looks at God through differently tinted glasses. A person wearing blue glasses will see everything blue. “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15). A person who is himself vicious and vengeful will tend to see others, including God, as vicious and vengeful. “The children of your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ But it is their way that is not fair!” (Ezekiel 33:17; 18:25)
How God Communicates
God uses our concepts of Him to communicate with us, even when those concepts are distorted. In one of Jesus’ parables a man said to his master (who symbolized God), “I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” His lord replied, “Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit, and reaping what I did not sow” (Luke 19:21,22). The master’s description of himself was not his own, but was taken directly from the mouth of his servant. The Lord speaks to us in the same way, using our own words and ideas, even if inaccurate.
The result of this is that God is often described in terms of imperfect human qualities–not because He actually has those qualities, but because certain imperfect humans think that He does.
For example, the Bible says “God rested” (Genesis 2:2, 3; Exodus 20:11; 31:17; Deuteronomy 5:14; Hebrews 4:4, 10) and “awoke out of sleep” (Psalm 44:23;78:65), when in fact the Lord “neither faints nor is weary” (Isaiah 40:28) and “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4).
The Bible also speaks of God “coming down,” (Genesis 11:5; 18:17; Numbers11:25; Exodus 3:8) and “going up” (Genesis 35:13) or “going away” (Genesis18:33), when really, He cannot go or come because He is already constantly present everywhere (Psalm 139:7; 1 Kings 8:27). He “fills heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 23:23). “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
The Bible also says that the Lord “forgets” people (Jeremiah 23:39; Hosea 4:6; Psalm 13:1; 42:9) and later “remembers” them again (Genesis 9:16; 19:29; Ex 2:24; 6:4; Isaiah 43:26; etc.) In actual fact, God never forgets (Amos 8:7; Hebrews 5:10; Psalm 111:5). But the Bible speaks of Him forgetting, because our impatience and ignorance of His plans make us feel like He has forgotten. “Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yes they may forget, yet will I not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you upon the palm of My hand” (Isaiah 49:13).
Another example of God revealing Himself to us in terms of our own traits is the frequent reference to the Lord “repenting,” or changing His mind.(Genesis 6:6; Exodus 32:14; Judges 2:18; 1 Samuel 15:35; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalm 106:45; Jeremiah 26:19; Amos 7:3; Jonah 3:10). From our limited perspective, it may seem as if God changes His mind, but in reality, He never does. “He is not a man that He should repent” (1 Samuel 15:29; Numbers 23:19; Romans 11:29). “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11, Proverbs 19:21). “I am the Lord, I change not” (Malachi 3:7; see also Psalm 132:11; Job 23:13; Ecclesiastes 3:14).
The Lord speaks of Himself sleeping, waking, forgetting, remembering, coming, going, repenting, and so on, so that we can identify with Him more easily. But He makes it clear that His real nature is different than ours–different than it appears. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8).
The Real Source of Evil
God has no desire to punish anyone. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). When He does tolerate evil it is because He sees that good can come from it. As Joseph said after his brothers betrayed him, “You thought evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
What has seemed to mankind to be evidence of God’s anger, then, has usually been not from God at all, but from the cruel influence of hell. We see for example, in the story of Job, that Satan was eager to torture Job, and it was only with reluctance that God allowed Satan to bring disaster on Job. Yet because Job did not know that the real source of his disaster was Satan, he supposed it was from God (Job 1:6-21, 2:1-10, 30:21).
In a similar situation, the Bible says (according to the appearance) that “the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, ‘Go number Israel’” (2 Samuel 24:1). Another passage shows the real source of the trouble: “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1). God Himself would never send evil on anyone: “’I know the thoughts that I think toward you,’ says the LORD, ‘thoughts of peace, and not of evil’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
In yet another incident, we are told that God tempted Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son. But the fact is that “God does not tempt anyone, but each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (James 1:13,14). Although temptation may appear to be from God (Matthew 6:13), its actual source is hell (Matthew 4:1, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:21, 1 Corinthians 7:5, 1 Thessalonians 3:5).
Other passages speak of the Lord venting His anger by sending evil spirits to cause trouble for people (1 Samuel 16:14-23, Judges 9:23, Psalm 78:49). But the Lord makes it clear that He “does not willingly afflict” people or cause them grief (Lamentations 3:22, 23, 31-32), and that He cannot work in cooperation with Satan (Matthew 12:27, Luke 11:19). Therefore, hell is the source of the trouble which God unwillingly tolerates for the sake of our freedom. Yet because we suppose God is the source, the Bible speaks as if God were the one who is angry. But this is the human point of view, so Paul, speaking of God’s vengeance, says, “I speak in a human way” (Romans 3:5).
Who Sees the Lord Clearly?
God appears in many different ways to many different people, and at times His genuine qualities of love and mercy are veiled behind an appearance of anger. “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance” (1 Samuel 16:7). In fact, Paul says that those who focus on the literal meaning, and on the dispensation of death and condemnation, can not see Word of God clearly. It is as if their “minds are blinded” and “a veil is over their hearts” whenever they read the Old Testament (2 Corinthians 3:6-15).
Yet it is possible to know God as He truly is. For those who turn to the Lord the veil is lifted and they can see the Lord clearly (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:1). People who are good and wise can really know the nature of His mercy. “To the merciful I will show myself merciful” (2 Samuel 22:26). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). “Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the loving kindness of the Lord” (Psalm 107:43).