The modern depiction of God is quite often a depiction of a deity without any form of wrath or judgment. In general, people, when talking about their vision of what God must be like, will describe a character who is strong and giving, kind without interfering, open to all sorts of new ideas and ways, and who would not actually—not really actually—pass judgment on someone who is trying their best, or at least trying a little.
Of course, such a picture of God is false and unhelpful, though many do not see it. The picture is unhelpful because it fails to consider the depth of humanity’s cruelty. A wrathless deity has no recourse for the deep evil of humanity. It seems all well and good to deny the judgment of God, but what do you do when faced with a genocidal maniac? What do you do when confronted with a Hitler, a Stalin, a murderous mob boss, a child-kidnapping human trafficker? Obviously, then, our hearts cry for judgment, at least for judgment of a sort.
To believe that God is not in control or not able or willing to judge leaves us in a state where the existence of God is an irrelevancy. That, of course, is part of why our world likes to play with spirituality without defining the boundaries of faith, truth, or even justice. We only cry for justice when we see something terrible happen. Then, when we cry for it, humanity often points a finger at what they perceive to be their deity and ask why he did not fix the problem—even though they originally assumed him to be unwilling to judge and unable to participate in human affairs.
Yes, the non-judgmental, passive deity of modern imagination is not helpful. But there is something even worse than that being as unsatisfying: He does not exist. The Bible’s picture of God is not one of passivity. The Bible does not give us a picture of a God who is unwilling to judge. Just consider the revelation of God in the Old Testament book of Nahum.
Nahum is a prophet who spoke out against the city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. You may know of that city from the adventures of the prophet Jonah, the one who ran away from God only to be turned back to his proper course by being swallowed by a fish. Jonah preached against Nineveh, and, for a time, the people repented of their brutality and cruelty.
But, by the time Nahum is on the stage, the empire has gotten back to their unimaginable human cruelty. These people were the worst of the worst in their day, brutally torturing and killing those they conquered.
The modern depiction of a wrathless deity has nothing to offer those oppressed by the Assyrian blood lust. But the genuine God of the Bible has something to say.
2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
As Nahum’s prophecy opens, he calls on the people to realize that God has wrath, real, genuine, city-crushing wrath. God is slow to anger. He is patient. But, when the rubber hits the road, or when the refuse hits the fan, the God of the Bible will judge. His judgment will be strong, swift, irreversible, and unbearable.
7 The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
8 But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries,
and will pursue his enemies into darkness.
9 What do you plot against the Lord?
He will make a complete end;
trouble will not rise up a second time.
God is going to judge. He points out that nobody can plot against him. Nobody can withstand his judgment. It will be like a sweeping flood. Enemies of the Lord will not stand.
Notice, however, even in the midst of the prophecy of coming judgment, Nahum highlights the fact that God is good. The wrath of God is no knock on his goodness. No matter what modern folks thing they want in a deity, a truly good God will judge. He must judge. He cannot ignore evil. To ignore evil, to let it go unpunished, would be the opposite of every bit of the character of God as revealed in Scripture. And, to ignore evil would go against what, if we were honest, we know must be true and right.
So, what do we take away from these thoughts. First, God is a judge, and this is good. It is both biblical and satisfying, even if it is terrifying to those of us who realize we are sinners. We are not the masters of the universe. We are not little kings and queens of creation who get to make our own rules. We are to be under the rule of a sovereign God. To fail to get under his mercy is to invite his judgment.
And, we take from this a joyful hope in the grace of God also presented right here in a passage full of judgment. In verse 7, Nahum told us, “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.” There is refuge to be found in the Lord. There is mercy for those who are willing, in obedience to his command, to come to him in faith and repentance. God would not be good if he never judged. But God is good when he shows mercy to those who run to him, getting under his authority and seeking his mercy. The judgment deserved by all God forgives was poured out on Jesus on the cross. The judgment for those who refuse God’s grace, who ignore his word, who turn away from him and make up a deity of their own design will fall directly on them as it fell on Nineveh. But the mercy of God is extended to all who will run to him and find grace in Christ. Thus, we can see that there is a genuine wrath in a genuinely good God.