The Wrath Of God
1:18-23 For the wrath of God is being revealed from Heaven, directed against all impiousness and wickedness of men, who, in their wickedness, wilfully suppress the truth that is struggling in their hearts, for, that which can be known about God is clear within them, for God has made it clear to them, because, from the creation of the world, it has always been possible to understand the invisible things by the created things--I mean his invisible power and divinity--and things have been so ordered in order to leave them without defence, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify God and they did not give him thanks, but they have involved themselves in futile speculations and their senseless mind was darkened. They alleged themselves to be wise, but they have become fools, and they have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the image of the likeness of mortal man, and of winged creatures, and of four-footed animals, and of creeping reptiles.
In the previous passage Paul was thinking about the relationship with God into which a man can enter through the faith which is utter yieldedness and trust. In contrast with that he sets the wrath of God which a man must incur, if he is deliberately blind to God and worships his own thoughts and idols instead of him.
This is difficult and must give us seriously to think, for here we meet the conception of the wrath of God, an alarming and a terrifying phrase. What is its meaning? What was in Paul's mind when he used it?
In the early parts of the Old Testament the wrath of God is specially connected with the idea of the covenant people. The people of Israel were in a special relationship with God. He had chosen them and offered them this special relationship, which would obtain so long as they kept his law ( Exodus 24:3-8 ). That meant two things.
(a) It meant that within the nation any breach of the law provoked the wrath of God for it broke the relationship. Numbers 16:1-50 tells of the rebelliousness of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and at the end of it Moses bade Aaron make special atonement for the sin of the people "for wrath has gone forth from the Lord" ( Numbers 16:46 ). When the Israelites were led away into Baal worship, "The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel" ( Numbers 25:3 ).
(b) Further, because Israel stood in a unique relationship to God, any other nation which treated her with cruelty and injustice incurred the wrath of God. The Babylonians had ill-treated Israel, and because of the wrath of the Lord she shall not be inhabited ( Jeremiah 50:13 ).
In the prophets, the idea of the wrath of God occurs, but the emphasis has changed. Jewish religious thought from the prophets onwards was dominated by the idea of the two ages. There was this age which was altogether bad, and there was the golden age which was altogether good, the present age and the age to come. These two ages were separated by the Day of the Lord. That was to be a day of terrible retribution and judgment, when the world would be shattered, the sinner destroyed and the universe remade before God's Kingdom came. It was then that the wrath of the Lord would go into terrible action. "Behold the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation" ( Isaiah 13:9 ). "Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts" ( Isaiah 9:19 ). Ezekiel 7:19 speaks of "the day of the wrath of the Lord." God will pour out upon the nations "his indignation and all the heat of his anger" ( Zephaniah 3:8 ).
But the prophets did not regard the wrath of God as being postponed until that terrible day of judgment. They saw it continuously in action. When Israel strayed away from God, when she was rebellious and unfaithful, then the wrath of God operated against her and involved her in ruin, disaster, captivity and defeat.
To the prophets the wrath of God was continually operating, and would reach its peak of terror and destruction on the coming Day of the Lord.
A modern scholar has put it this way. Because he is God, because he is characteristically holy, God cannot tolerate sin, and the wrath of God is his "annihilating reaction" against sin.
That is hard for us to grasp and to accept. It is in fact the kind of religion that we associate with the Old Testament rather than with the New. Even Luther found it hard. He spoke of God's love as Gods own work, and he spoke of his wrath as Gods strange work. It is for the Christian mind a baffling thing.
Let us try to see how Paul understood this conception. Dr C. H. Dodd writes very wisely and profoundly on this matter. Paul speaks frequently of this idea of wrath. But the strange thing is that although he speaks of the wrath of God, he never speaks of God being angry. He speaks of God's love, and he speaks of God loving. He speaks of God's grace, and of God graciously giving. He speaks of God's fidelity, and of God being faithful to his people. But, very strangely, although he speaks of the wrath of God, he never speaks about God being angry. So then there is some difference in the connection with God of love and wrath.
Further, Paul speaks of the wrath of God only three times. He does so here, and in Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 3:6 where, in both passages, he speaks of the wrath of God coming upon the children of disobedience. But quite frequently Paul speaks about the wrath, without saying it is the wrath of God, as if it ought to be spelled with capital letters--The Wrath--and was a kind of impersonal force at work in the world. In Romans 3:5 the literal translation is, "God who brings on men The Wrath." In Romans 5:9 he speaks about being saved from the wrath. In Romans 12:19 he advises men not to take vengeance but to leave evil-doers to the wrath. In Romans 13:5 he speaks about the wrath as being a powerful motive to keep men obedient. In Romans 4:15 he says that the law produces wrath. And in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 he says that Jesus delivered us from The Wrath to come. Now there is something very strange here. Paul speaks about the wrath, and yet from that very wrath Jesus saves men.
Let us go back to the prophets. Very often their message amounted to this, "If you are not obedient to God, the wrath of God will involve you in ruin and disaster." Ezekiel put this in another vivid way--"The soul that sins shall die" ( Ezekiel 18:4 ). If we were to put this into modern language we would say, "There is a moral order in this world, and the man who transgresses it soon or late is bound to suffer." That is exactly what J. A. Froude the great historian said: "One lesson, and one lesson only, history may be said to repeat with distinctness, that the world is built somehow on moral foundations, that, in the long run, it is well with the good, and, in the long run, it will be ill with the wicked."
The whole message of the Hebrew prophets was that there is a moral order in this world. The conclusion is clear--that moral order is the wrath of God at work. God made this world in such a way that we break his laws at our peril. Now if we were left solely at the mercy of that inexorable moral order, there could be nothing for us but death and destruction. The world is made in such a way that the soul that sins must die--if the moral order is to act alone. But into this dilemma of man there comes the love of God, and that love of God, by an act of unbelievable free grace, lifts man out of the consequences of sin and saves him from the wrath he should have incurred.
Paul goes on to insist that men cannot plead ignorance of God. They could have seen what he is like from his world. It is always possible to tell something of a man from his handiwork; and it is possible to tell something about God from the world he made. The Old Testament writers knew that. Job 38:1-41 ; Job 39:1-30 ; Job 40:1-24 ; Job 41:1-34 , is based on that very idea. Paul knew it. It is from the world that he starts when he is speaking to the pagans at Lystra ( Acts 14:17 ). Tertullian, the great early Christian Father, has much about this conviction that God can be seen in his world. "It was not the pen of Moses that initiated the knowledge of the Creator. The vast majority of mankind, though they had never heard the name of Moses--to say nothing of his book--know the God of Moses none the less." "Nature," he said, "is the teacher; the soul is the pupil." "One flower of the hedgerow by itself, I think--I do not say a flower of the meadows; one shell of any sea you like--I do not say a pearl from the Red Sea; one feather of a moor fowl--to say nothing of a peacock--will they speak to you of a mean Creator?" "If I offer you a rose, you will not scorn its Creator."
In the world we can see God. It is Paul's argument--and it is completely valid--that if we look at the world we see that suffering follows sin. Break the laws of agriculture--your harvest fails. Break the laws of architecture--your building collapses. Break the laws of health--your body suffers. Paul was saying "Look at the world! See how it is constructed! From a world like that you know what God is like." The sinner is left without excuse.
Paul goes on another step. What did the sinner do? Instead of looking out to God, he looked into himself. He involved himself in vain speculations and thought he was wise, while all the time he was a fool. Why? He was a fool because he made his ideas, his opinions, his speculations the standard and the law of life, instead of the will of God. The sinner's folly consisted in making "man the master of things." He found his standards in his own opinions and not in the laws of God. He lived in a self-centred instead of a God-centred universe. Instead of walking looking out to God he walked looking into himself, and, like any man who does not look where he is going, he fell.
The result of this was idolatry. The glory of God was exchanged for images of human and animal forms. The root sin of idolatry is that it is selfish. A man makes an idol. He brings it offerings and addresses prayers to it. Why? So that his own schemes and dreams may be furthered. His worship is for his own sake and not for God's.
In this passage we are face to face with the fact that the essence of sin is to put self in the place of God.
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