Imitators of God: Slow to Anger

**This entire series has be very much indebted to the fabulous book by Michael Knowles, The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name. This final part also owes much to Zack Hunt and his post “An Angry God Vs. A God Who Gets Angry”While I don’t always agree with Zack, we agree more often than not, and this post was incredibly edifying and helpful.**


A jealous and avenging God is the LORD, the LORD is avenging and wrathful;

the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.

The LORD is slow to anger but great in power,

and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. (Nahum 1:2-3)

We seldom stop and reflect on Nahum. How many of us can even remember hearing a sermon on this book? How many churchgoers can even find it? Nahum is unique among the prophets. Although the other Old Testament prophetic books contain “doom and gloom” with messages telling of impending death, destruction, famine, plague, sword, they all then speak of restoration, hope, what we could even call resurrection. But Nahum is the only prophetic book which doesn’t have this message of compassion following wrath, and hope in the midst of suffering. Nahum contains nothing but stern and terrifying warnings. It’s not a warm, cuddly, happy, uplifting book. It tells us that although God is slow to anger, he gets mad. He gets mad big time. And when he does, it gets ugly.

Is God an angry God, or a God who gets angry?

Too many picture God as vengeful. The assumption is that He is holy and can’t tolerate sin of any kind. Some say he is “allergic to sin”. He hates sinful mankind is planning to torment sinners forever in hell. The only possible consolation is that Jesus’ death on the cross is presumed to absorb God’s wrath- God misdirects his anger at Jesus and kills him instead of us, and Jesus protects us from the wrath of the Father. If we aren’t careful, and not “truly saved” we experience torment forever in flames.

The famous Massachusetts preacher, Jonathan Edwards, said:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.” (Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, quote copied from Zack Hunt, “An Angry God Vs. A God Who Gets Angry”).

Unfortunately Edwards’ theology is often most identified with this one sermon, pulled out of the context of his body of work and the context of the congregation he was speaking to and the tradition he was in.

But is this the God we see in Scripture? Is God looking down on us “dreadfully provoked” with wrath which “burns like fire” and does he see us as “worth of nothing else but to be cast into the fire”? Would that not contradict the affirmation that God is compassionate and forgiving, eager to redeem and restore? Is the description of God in this sermon by Edwards or the all too often careless interpretation of the writing of the prophet Nahum really who God is? Is God an angry God? Or is he a loving and extravagantly compassionate God who sometimes gets angry?

YHWH is Slow to anger. God says of himself he is “slow to anger” and he is “by no means clearing the guilty” (Ex. 34:6-7). This of course means, yes, he is patient, but there is a point at which he gets angry and responds to humans with justice and consequence. So God forgives iniquity, transgression and sin but won’t clear the guilty? How does that work?

Do not say, “I sinned, yet what has happened to me?” for the Lord is slow to anger.

Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add sin to sin.

Do not say, “His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins,” for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger will rest on sinners. (Sirach 5:4–6)

 Commenting on this from Sirach, Knowles writes:

Here the writer envisages three possibilities: first, that sinners might misinterpret the fact that God does not punish their errors immediately; second, that they might take the promise of forgiveness as an excuse for sin; and third, that they might mistake clemency for indulgence. The problem, it would seem, boils down to focusing on one divine attribute at the expense of all the others, for knowing God’s ways is a matter of appreciating the divine character as a whole rather than concentrating on particular characteristics in isolation.[1]

In other words, his forgiving nature is not carte blanche to do whatever our sinful imagination can come up with. He is forgiving, but that doesn’t mean you can do whatever with no possibility of negative consequence.

God’s slowness to anger means he still can, and may bring consequences. In the Talmud we read:

 Said R. Levi: “What is the meaning of ‘slow to anger’? It means, ‘Distant from wrath.’ It may be compared to a king who had two tough legions. The king said, ‘If they dwell here with me in the metropolis, if the city-folk anger me now, they will put them down [with force]. But lo, I shall send them a long way away, so that if the cityfolk anger me, while I am yet summoning the legions, the people will appease me, and I shall accept their plea.’ Likewise the Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Anger and wrath are angels of destruction. Lo, I shall send them a long way away, so that if Israel angers me, while I am summoning and bringing them to me, Israel will repent, and I shall accept their repentance.” (y. Taanit 2:1).

God, in his compassion restrains his anger to give room for repentance. He will give every opportunity to show grace and mercy. He will bend over backwards to avoid showing wrath. In commenting on the Exodus 34 exchange between God and Moses, the Babylonian Talmud says,

“When Moses went up on high and ascended Mount Sinai, he saw the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting and writing the word “long-suffering” among His attributes, and he said to Him: “Master of the Universe, surely You mean that You are long-suffering only for the righteous.” God said to him: “No, I am long-suffering even for the wicked.” (b. Sanh. 111A-b).

He will allow as much room for all people to find grace as he can. He will defer consequences. Or as 2 Peter says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” 2 Pet. 3:9.

His anger is slow in coming, and also short lived. His anger passes quickly. He may discipline for a time, but will not forsake those he loves. We see this repeatedly throughout Scripture (e.g. Ps. 7, Heb. 12. Cf. 2 Macc 6:12-16). There may be a time when we don’t see his mercy and compassion, and may experience a correcting justice. But his love is forever and his anger for a time. As we see in the Psalms:

For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. (Ps. 30:5).

Lord, you were favourable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2 You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin.
3 You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger…

Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger to all generations?…

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Ps. 85:1-3, 5, 10)

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. (Ps. 103:8-13)

So when we deal with difficult passages in Scripture (like Nahum) we have to read carefully. We often attribute to God this wrathfulness which is not really biblically justified. Yes, he gets angry. Yes, wrath is part of our reality. But his nature is patient, and he tempers his anger and wrath with abundant compassion and extravagant grace. This grace is available, and it is transformational. God’s desire is to mold us into the image of the Son (i.e. to become “imitators of God” [Eph. 5:1]). His desire is not to punish sinners, but to forgive them and make all things new.

So, what makes God angry…

We often assume God gets mad at sin. When we swear, or watch an R rated movie, or sleep in on Sunday, God gets fired up; he’s ready to open up a can of hellfire and brimstone on us vile sinners. And everything bad that happens must be punishment for that; my car broke down… must have been because I cussed when I got cut off in traffic last week.

What you might be surprised to find out is that this really isn’t what bothers God the most. I’m sure he’d prefer it if we watched our tongues, and were mindful of what we watched, and I’m certain he wants us all to be faithful in gathering with the body of Christ for communal worship and hearing the teaching of the word. But what really gets God riled up is something else.

Hypocrisy. Injustice. Exploitation.

What really makes God mad is when people who are supposed to belong to him inflict suffering. Read the prophets. What is God mad about? Yes, God was mad at the pagan nations for inflicting suffering on his chosen people Israel, but he was also mad at Judah and Israel too (see Amos 1 & 2). Israel was corrupt. Their leaders and the wealthy exploited and enslaved the poor. They used rigged scales to cheat each other. They created greater inequality in their midst. They worshipped YHWH at the Temple, but lived like the other nations. Creation was being afflicted by people who were created to be his image bearers. His people were being abused, exploited and oppressed by their own.

“God is not an angry God who wants his people to suffer.

God is a God who gets angry when he sees his people suffer.” [2]

Consider Amos 5:

11 Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,

but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.

14 Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
15 Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph…

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

You see, it’s the blatant hypocrisy of it that makes God so mad. They worship God but refuse to be compassionate. They offer sacrifices and have festivals, but deny justice to the vulnerable. This duplicitous demonstration is what gets God mad.

Consider also Micah:

Can I tolerate wicked scales
and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence;
your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths (6:11-12)…

The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
thus they pervert justice. (7:2-3)

And then there’s Isaiah:

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.  (Isa. 1:10-17)

And when does Jesus show anger? To the adulteress Samaritan woman at the well? To Levi or Zaccheus the tax collectors? No, it’s the people who proclaim their loyalty to YHWH but who oppress and hold back hurting people and bind them and shame them and prevent them from seeing the extravagant love of God. These are the folks that really anger Jesus- the hypocrites on a constant witch hunt, who ignore their own cold hearts but seek to cast out anyone who doesn’t fit their cold, moralistic vision of the people of God.

So what does it mean when we read “Not clearing the guilty”? Is God punishing sinners? Why don’t we see consequences sometimes? “For Nahum, justice delayed is by no means ‘justice denied.’”[3] He will postpone punishment as long as possible in order to give adequate time. He is slow to anger, but he will call us to account if we inflict suffering on the world. Those who exploit people, and refuse to show compassion on those in need will be evaluated. There will be an accounting of these things. He is gracious and compassionate, he will show mercy wherever possible. But those who reject the life of being in the image of God will see justice. There is a time for consequence.

Does this mean God will, at some point, dispense wrath forever and without restraint? Habakkuk called on God whose judgment was imminent, and he prayed “In wrath, remember mercy.” (Hab. 3:2). In the middle of your anger, may we still see the compassion you have. And Habakkuk’s prayer is right on point. God, even in the midst of wrath and anger will limit himself in the outpouring of anger. Even when angry it cannot be said of God that he is not merciful to those who cry out to him. His anger and his punishment will be short-lived.

God will be compassionate. He will pour out grace upon grace. The death of Christ is not misdirected wrath poured out on Jesus, but it is the offer of compassion- it is God taking from us the sin which destroys us, and removing the very thing which draws us away from his grace. He removes from us the curse of sin and death. It is Jesus Christ offering himself as an act of compassion and mercy.

He is merciful. Even in the midst of consequence, he is there, bearing with us through it. And we are imitate this to the people around us. God is angry and is planning to punish you is not good news. God is has in the incarnation, life, crucifixion and triumphant resurrection demonstrated his desire to manifest compassion and grace in your life. He remembered compassion. That is very Good News.

[1] Knowles, Michael. The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2012. 105.

[2] Zack Hunt “An Angry God Vs. A God Who Gets Angry”. The American Jesus, Apr. 22, 2013.

[3] Knowles, 104.

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