The Theological Message of God’s Anger

Why mention God’s anger?

This verse appears at the beginning of a passage that foretells a time when God will gather in the scattered exiles of Israel and bring them back to their land, never to be exiled again. While this prophecy is one of reconciliation, depicting God’s eternal love for Israel, Jeremiah still mentions God’s “anger,” “fury,” and “great wrath.” If the point of the passage is to remind Israel of the promise of restoration in the future, when God will re-enact His covenant with Israel and shower them with blessings, why mention God’s state of rage and fury which led to the exile? How does a reminder of God’s anger contribute to the vision of restoration that is the subject of the passage? 

God’s anger after the Golden Calf

To answer this question, let’s go back to the very first time in the Bible that we find God enraged at the children of Israel. In Exodus, after the great revelation at Mount Sinai, Moses went up the mountain to receive the Torah from God. After 40 days and 40 nights, the people became impatient. They worried that Moses would never come back. In their panic, they fashioned a golden calf and declared, “These are your gods, o Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” (Ex. 32:4) The scene that followed included worship and offerings to the golden calf. 

God’s reaction was to tell Moses that He was going to wipe out the children of Israel. Here is Moses’ response:

Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” So, the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. – Exodus 32:11-14

Moses’ argued that if God did, in fact, destroy the Children of Israel and begin anew, the message to the nations of the world would be that God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were not eternal. The inescapable conclusion would be that God’s promises are conditional on Israel’s behavior. 

What if God breaks a promise?

Interestingly, this argument is exactly what was argued by the early Christian theologian Augustine. Augustine argued that God’s covenant with Israel was no longer valid due to the Jews’ failure to keep up their end of the relationship. 

Moses responded to God by reminding Him of His promise to the patriarchs of Israel, that their descendants would inherit the land forever. If God were to now destroy Israel, God would reveal Himself to be a God who does not keep His promises. By accepting Moses’ argument and changing His mind, God revealed a powerful truth about His relationship to Israel. Namely, that the covenantal promises to His people are eternal and unconditional. There is no way for Israel to break the covenant to the point that it is rendered null and void. 

There is a powerful theological point here that often goes unnoticed. Moses did not try to downplay the grave sin of the Children of Israel. He did not appeal to God’s mercies. Moses argued that the truth of who God is and what His promises mean demands that He not end His relationship with Israel. By accepting Moses’ argument, God revealed an important aspect of the covenant with Israel that could not have been learned any other way.

The lesson of Israel’s disobedience

As ironic as this may sound, had the Children of Israel always remained faithful and obedient to God, we would never know the extent of God’s commitment to keep His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Without Israel turning its back on God and sinning in such a grave manner, we could be left with the impression that God’s covenant with Israel is conditional. So long as Israel is faithful and obedient, the covenantal promises are intact. The assertion that God’s promises to Israel are dependent on Israel’s fidelity to God would be a logical assumption. Ironically, it is only due to the grave betrayal of God with the golden calf that we know that God’s promises are eternal, unconditionally.

I’d like to suggest that this is the reason Jeremiah included mention of God’s anger and wrath in this passage. Rather than merely taking an opportunity to include some words of rebuke in this prophecy of restoration, Jeremiah’s mention of God’s rage only adds to the message of reconciliation. In other words, even though God scattered Israel into exile “in my anger, my fury, and with great wrath,” no one should make the mistake of thinking that this means the end of God’s covenant with Israel.

For many centuries, the majority of Christians believed exactly this mistake, that God had ended His covenant with Israel. The nation of Israel does not deny the gravity of our betrayal of God. We sinned. And our exile and suffering are well-deserved. But we also never stopped believing and knowing that God would redeem us from exile and gather us back to our land, not for our sake, but for the sake of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And that covenant is forever.

God’s promises to the Jewish people are eternal, not because they are earned or deserved, but because God’s promises to the patriarchs are irrevocable. Those theologians who mistakenly thought that God had forsaken Israel fell into the mistake predicted by Moses.

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Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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