I grew up hearing all the concern about the Old Testament’s angry and vengeful God. This is certainly an important theological question. Theology should be questioning the nature of God. With all the emphasis on power and authority among many Christian preachers and believers, the nature of that power and authority is also important to consider. Who wants to worship a God who threatens you whenever He doesn’t get what he wants? (This kind of of God is almost always, certainly, a “He.”)
But, if one actually spends time with Old Testament scriptures, one can read the prophet’s encounter with God a different way. This is the reading I’ve been searching for, and am finding. Chapter 4 of Jeremiah is a good example of what I mean.
Sometimes, our wrestling with God’s anger is not about wrath or punishment. It’s about natural or reasonable consequences. As human beings, no one is so free, so entitled, or so endowed that they are exempt from life’s consequences – earned and unearned. We reap what we sow. And, often, we aren’t aware of all that we sow because we are not mindful of how deep our actions shape our world. Verses 18-19 paint such a picture. God says,
“Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you, this is your doom; how bitter it is! It has reached your very heart.”
And, God speaks of himself.
“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”
Israel and Judah are recounting their conquer and invasion. They are remembering the events that lead up to their exile from the promised land.
This is the question: After release from Pharaoh, generations in the desert, God’s covenant with us and Solomon’s Temple, how does a nation – a people! – make sense of their own disaster and ruin? This seems like an everpresent, relevant, and legitimate question.
There is an answer. In the time of the prophets, the people believed what happened on earth reflected the realities of heaven. If there was famine, God withheld the rain for a reason. There was some divine cause. A relationship was broken. If there was war, those who occupied the heavens were also at war. Faithful and more powerful God’s prevail.
What’s going on in heaven when Israel and Judah are conquered? Prophetic theology provides an explanation.
“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good… Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.” (vs 22, 28)
If we read flatly, God is just punishing Israel and Judah. This is natural to believe because the ancients believed God was the protagonist of history. God propelled time’s events. However, if we appreciate that theology makes sense of circumstance, we can appreciate a richer, more relevant and provocative interpretation for us today. As human beings, no one ever grows so free, so entitled, so powerful, or so endowed that they are exempt from life’s consequences. Would that be just? Are some more entitled to grace and fortune that others? Should we not reap what we sow? Perhaps, something in Israel and Judah had gone off the rails. Perhaps, there was injustice, growing inequities, and many people’s hearts were turning away from the Law which taught truth, justice, equity, and peace.
Perhaps talk about an angry God is talk that tries to make sense of all this. Perhaps it’s an attempt to put reason to what has come to seem unreasonable. Perhaps the role of the prophet is to find God midst God-forsakenness, social brokenness, and pain.