God’s wrath is certainly a terrible thing and sometimes in our hearts and minds as Christians it is best to stand silently in awe. There is also a time for thinking through what the judgment of God is and to seek to understand its justice. What is God trying to accomplish through his wrath? Or, terrible thought, is God’s wrath an end in itself? How does God’s wrath tie in with some of His other attributes? As a case study in beginning to answer these questions I propose looking to oft-overlooked book of Amos and look at God’s righteous judgment of Israel therein which reveals God’s wrath is not arbitrary but has the clear purpose of brining His people back into a harmonious relationship with Him.
The first chapter of Amos concerns God’s impending judgment on the nations surrounding Israel for various crimes including murder, abortion and tyranny. They will all be smitten by fire. Slowly, the countries prophecied get closer to Israel, tightening like a knot. The far off lands of Damascus and Gaza begin to fade to the distand cousins of Israel, Moab and Ammon, and even their brothers in Judah. Finally, the Lord condemns the Israelites themselves for their rejection of the law of the Lord, selling each other into slavery, and for indulging in temple prostitution.
It is striking that Israel incurs the wrath of God for sins far less brutal than those of the nations surrounding them. The question of the justice of this action is soon answered, however, in 2:9-3:16. Israel has willfully turned her back on her deliverer and champion. God fought for them, led them and set them apart, but for all this they give back rejection. For instance, “It was I who brought you up out of the land of Egypt and led you forty years in the wilderness to possess the land of the Amorite. And I raised up some of your sons for prphets, and some of your young men for Nazirities…But you made the Nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘you shall not prophesy.'” (2:10-12 ESV) God, making every faithful and providential effort on His part finds only rejection of His gifts and ingratitude on the part of His people. Israel is held to a higher standard given that they know God and He has shown special favor on them: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (3:2)
The next chapters constitute the impending judgment of the Lord, which Amos’ prophecy describes as certain (3:3-15) and will fall on the decadent rich (4:1-5). We then find out that God has actually punished them before for their wicked deeds and each event closes with “‘yet you did not return to me,’ declares the LORD.” Here we begin to find the heart of God as it relates to His judgment.
Passages like this cause me to think that God’s punishment has more to do with waking His people up so they will turn back to Him and live in right relationship with Him as opposed to God simply punishing sin x with corresponding punishment y. God’s wrath, therefore, is not met out according to impersonal laws, but with a very personal end of restoring harmonious relationship.
I think on other dramatic part of Amos support this position. In chapter 7, God shows Amos two visions of destruction of Israel, by locusts and by fire. Amos begs God to relent, as Abraham and Moses did before him, and God agrees. In the very next incident in the book (7:10-17) one of the priests of Israel rejects Amos and banishes him for his prophecy. He was given a chance for repentance, but chose to operate within his own idea of the way God relates to Israel, which conveniently allows him to neglect Israel’s sin. The priest, Amaziah, says, “never again prohesy at Bethel for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (7:13) Amaziah implies that Amos’ prophecy is impious because he declares the Lord will destroy “holy places”. If God’s judgment operated according to an arbitrary set of rules He would have no reason to destroy the holy places of Israel – that would, in fact, demoralize them. God’s destruction of places like this makes sense, however, if we consider it in light of His desire for Israel to return to Him. If Israel sees that their sacrifices are displeasing (5:21-23) and their places of refuge offer no protection, the only place they can turn is back to God.
God’s desire is that His people “seek [Him] and live.” (5:4-6) In Amos God’s wrath is not of an arbitrary nature, but has a clear purpose: bringing the Iraelites back into the proper dependent relationship they should have with Him. The sad fact is that we human beings are so unfaithful and fickle in our loves that we need fear to drive us back to love. It is not until we suffer that we look upward instead of at ourselves.
His wrath is tough love.