Written by Pastor Ed
The Wrath of God
November 8, 2015
Books of the Bible – Nahum & Zephaniah
On July 8, 1741 The Great Awakening preacher, Jonathan Edwards, preached his famous sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” To quote just one paragraph:
They are now the Objects of that very same Anger & Wrath of God that is expressed in the Torments of Hell: and the Reason why they don’t go down to Hell at each Moment, is not because God, in whose Power they are, is not then very angry with them; as angry as he is with many of those miserable Creatures that he is now tormenting in Hell, and do there feel and bear the fierceness of his Wrath. Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell. So that it is not because God is unmindful of their Wickedness, and don’t resent it, that he don’t let loose his Hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, tho’ they may imagine him to be so. The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.
You don’t hear preaching like that much anymore. In fact, I don’t think you hear much these days about that other side of God. We don’t like to talk about anger or wrath in church. Maybe for better or maybe for worse, you’ll need to decide. Certainly growing up I heard a few sermons like that, although not from my pastors, but rather from traveling evangelist, who could pack up and leave town.
But certainly if you read the Bible, and particularly the two prophets that we are focusing on this morning, you read about an angry God. And it is a theme that runs through both the Old and New Testaments. But before I go further with that, a few words about these books themselves.
You will have noticed that today and next Sunday, I have lumped two books together, partly to finish up our walk through the Bible, but also because they naturally go together. Nahum and Zephaniah were written in the same time period, probably somewhere around 630 B.C., during the reign of Josiah. We know, and are told very little about the prophet Nahum, other than he is a great writer. Someone has said that the book of Nahum is the best piece of literature in the Old Testament in terms of poetry and writing. Content leaves something to be desired, perhaps, but he said it well. Some have suggested that he lived in close proximity to Ninevah, against whom he rails, while other have suggested that his home was at Capernaum. (Caper Nahum)
We know a bit more about Zephaniah since we are given his lineage at the beginning of the book. And it appears that he resided in Judah, the southern kingdom, since he references Josiah as king. In contrast to Nahum whose words are directed solely at Nineveh, that great and wicked city, Zephaniah’s warnings are directed first of all at Judah, and only later at the enemies of Judah.
And as we’ve heard, their messages are not ones of comfort and joy! While there are some glimpses of hope at the end of Zephaniah, the message is primarily one of doom and destruction because of God’s anger. God is portrayed as an angry, vengeful God who is ready to utterly destroy not only the people, but animals and all of creation. “Who can endure the heat of his anger?” (Nahum 1:6) Now we might sympathize with Nahum’s rant, because it is directed against Nineveh which was described by G.L. Robinson as “the capital of the most powerful, sensual, ferocious, and diabolically atrocious race of men that perhaps ever existed in all the world.” Assyria was known for its ruthlessness in warfare and as the seat of all kinds of idolatry and sin. And it was the enemy of Judah, so clearly, if you remember how the thinking went at that time, if it was an enemy of Judah, it was clearly an enemy of God and God would take vengeance on it.
But Zephaniah turns the same dire warning on Judah itself. The great day of the Lord is coming, a day of destruction when everything will go up in smoke and flames. “in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full and terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” (Zeph. 1:18)
Now granted, at the end of Zephaniah this is toned down a bit and it appears there may be a few survivors; “For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord – the remnant of Israel;” (Zeph. 3:12-13a), but the message is a clear one. God is upset!
There are those commentators who would see in these passages events yet to come. But if we are to take the prophets seriously in their own times, we need to recognize that these messages were clearly meant for the people of that day, and were a call for repentance and a return to following God, which Josiah attempted in his reforms. Nahum and Zephaniah may well have been catalysts for that reform, but as we know from other sources, those attempts at reform didn’t last very long.
Clearly the message to the people listening to Nahum and Zephaniah was a call to repentance and a change of ways. There was little hope that Nineveh would change, but perhaps Judah would listen and save itself, although Zephaniah, along with other prophets clearly has little hope that most people would heed their call.
But what do we do with this idea of an angry God. As I said, it’s not something we hear much about these days. I had to look long and hard to find a hymn that talked about it and finally found the one we just sang. Most of our hymns as well as much of our talk focuses on other aspects of God, God’s mercy and love primarily. And I think that’s ok. But what shall we do with this theme that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments of God’s anger, or more often wrath?
There is a certain tension even in the scriptures themselves between God’s love and God’s wrath. At time God is portrayed as so any with Israel, God’s people, that God is ready to wipe them off the face of the earth. We can think of the incident of the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, where God tells suggests wiping out everyone and starting over just with Moses, and Moses has to plead with God not to destroy the people. And of course we have numerous prophets like those we read today.
Yet again and again God relents and speaks of God’s people as his children who he cannot give up on. “How can I let you go?” God wonders. And eventually, through Christ, found a way to redeem all people onto God’s self.
So what shall we do with this other side of God? Can we talk about it? Should we talk about it or should we just ignore it? And if God can get angry, what about us? Anger is often seen as something we should avoid.
Well, one of the things that I notice as I read Nahum and Zephaniah, as well as other passages that speak of God’s wrath, is what God gets angry about. And there seem to be mainly two things that God gets angry about and the first and foremost of these is idolatry.
Does anyone remember the first of the 10 Commandments? “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20) One of the other attributes of God often mentioned in the prophets is that God is a jealous God. And so one of the primary things that God gets angry about is when people place their trust in something other than God.
4 I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
and the name of the idolatrous priests;[b]
5 those who bow down on the roofs
to the host of the heavens;
those who bow down and swear to the Lord,
but also swear by Milcom. (Zeph. 1:4-5)
The children of Israel were constantly borrowing from the religions around them, hedging their bets in a sense. If our God can’t help us, maybe some other god can. So along with the worship prescribed in the temple, other centres of worship were set up, the high places often talked about in the prophets. They relied on the military might of other nations, setting up alliances for protection or thought maybe their gold and silver would buy them protection and save them. All of that will be destroyed says God. From the beginning of God’s call to Israel, God expected that they would worship and trust in their God alone.
And the second thing that the prophets cite that makes God angry is injustice in the land. Again and again God calls to account those who oppress the poor, fail to take care of the widows and orphans, and use dishonest measures for buying and selling, taking advantage of other. God spares no one who practices injustice, not even the religious leaders.
Speaking of Jerusalem Zephaniah says,
Ah, soiled, defiled,
It has listened to no voice;
it has accepted no correction.
It has not trusted in the Lord;
it has not drawn near to its God.
The officials within it
are roaring lions;
its judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing until the morning.
Its prophets are reckless,
its priests have profaned what is sacred,
they have done violence to the law. (3: 1-4)
These seem to be the two main things that God gets angry about, putting other gods before the one true God, and mistreating those around us. Does that sound at all familiar? Anybody remember what we talked about last Sunday? When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he cited two, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” I’m sensing a common theme here.
Last Sunday I said that I was glad my salvation didn’t depend on my being right on every issue, but that my salvation did depend on these two commandments. Someone pointed out that perhaps that wasn’t worded the best, and in light of our theme for today I would rephrase that to say, I’m glad God isn’t going to judge me on whether I have been right on every issue that confronts the church, but God will judge me, and may well be angry with me, if I disobey these two commandments – to love God and love neighbour.
And we too should be angry when we see injustice and idolatry in this world. I’m sometimes amazed, and disheartened when I see what people get upset over, while the weightier issues of injustice get paid little heed. There are things we should be angry about, when people are oppressed, when children go hungry, when advantage is taken of the poor. We too need to call people to account, to return to God and follow in the way of Jesus.
For it is in Christ that the world is being changed into the Kingdom of God, where the oppressed are freed, the poor are fed, and the prisoners released. It is in Jesus Christ and in following him that we can live out those two greatest commandments and find hope for the future. It was the call of the prophets, the call of Jesus, and the call of the faithful church throughout the centuries.
Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.