The Wrath of God and the Horrors of Divine War

I have now read chapters 4-7 of the Book of Ezekiel. The prophetic words are horrifying. If Ezekiel had spoken them to me in 6th century BC, I would either have secreted myself in a cave or run the pretender out of town on a rail. How do we hear these judgments as God’s Word to us today? I do not know. How would I preach them if they were assigned to me as my text? I do not know. Yet God gave Ezekiel these words to declare to his people. They are words of doom, of merciless punishment and violent death. Because of Israel’s apostasy, the LORD will send the heathen to lay siege to Jerusalem; vanquish the Judahite army; raze the Temple; slay men, women, and children indiscriminately. There will be plague, pestilence, famine, cannabilism. The survivors will be either taken captive to Babylon or dispersed to the four winds. The active tense chills my soul: again and again the LORD declares that he is the doer of the coming devastation. One passage from many:

Behold, I, even I, am against you; and I will execute judgments in the midst of you in the sight of the nations. And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in the midst of you, and sons shall eat their fathers; and I will execute judg­ments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds. Wherefore, as I live, says the Lord God, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will cut you down; my eye will not spare, and I will have no pity. A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in the midst of you; a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.

Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury upon them. Moreover I will make you a desolation and an object of reproach among the nations round about you and in the sight of all that pass by. You shall be a reproach and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations round about you, when I execute judg­ments on you in anger and fury, and with furious chastisements—I, the Lord, have spoken—when I loose against you my deadly arrows of famine, arrows for destruction, which I will loose to destroy you, and when I bring more and more famine upon you, and break your staff of bread. I will send famine and wild beasts against you, and they will rob you of your children; pestilence and blood shall pass through you; and I will bring the sword upon you. I, the Lord, have spoken. (5:8-17)

Terrifying words of judgment are not unique to Ezekiel. We find similar pronouncements in Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Zephaniah, Micah. How do we reconcile them with the revelation of God’s absolute love and mercy in Jesus Christ? Yet surely we must reconcile them. The God who spoke through Ezekiel is the same God whom Jesus worshipped and served. The alternative proposed by Marcion, dividing the jealous Demiurge of the Old Testament from the compassionate God of the New, is unavailable to us. As a last resort we might avail ourselves of an allegorical reading or the notion of progressive revelation; but we should not rush to either prematurely. The “Thus says the LORD”constrains us. Ezekiel was commanded to eat the scroll of God’s Word (2:8-10). So perhaps must we.

When we turn to Robert W. Jenson’s commentary, we do not find relief from our anxiety and fear. That God freely chose twelve Hebrew tribes and formed them into his Israel, binding them to him by statutes and ordinances, lies at the heart of the biblical story. The divine choosing inevitably entails the summons to conformity to the moral will of the LORD. We should not be surprised, observes Jenson:

One person’s choice of another—whether it be God choosing Jerusalem or lovers choosing each other—contains an intention for the other—if it does not, the choice is not personal but rather arbitrary or mechanistically determined. And the intention of one person for another intrinsically displays some construal of their mutual good, unless again the chooser is a demon or automaton. If God chose Israel in love, then this included his intention that they together live one kind of life and not another, and the difference is delineated in Torah. (Ezekiel, p. 62)

Punishment follows apostasy and sin. Even sophisticated theologians may affirm the maxim. Sin carries within itself its own punishment. Yet the prophetic Word bespeaks a more active divine role: the LORD takes the field against his people. He is the One who punishes. “Behold, I, even I, am against you; and I will execute judgments in the midst of you in the sight of the nations” (5:8), he declares. If God is God, then he must be the agent of punishment:

Jerusalem is punished by inevitable consequences of sin and is punished by God in person. These are compatible on one condition: if the statutes and ordinances that make the moral order do not obtain independently of God (as often in other religions) or do not function merely as a mediation of divine order from afar (as in yet other systems) but simply are the Lord’s own willing and acting among his creatures.

The supposition that God can be wrathful when rebelled against, and even jealous of his people’s love, further offends our prejudices. We may try to escape by the popular supposition that God in the Old Testament could be wrathful and that the New Testament changes all that. But this notion cannot survive the slightest acquaintance with the texts. Paul is not outdone by Ezekiel: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness” (Rom. 1:18), which he latter catalogues in truly wrathful detail. And for depictions of divinely ordained destruction of the wicked, the New Testament book of Revelation tops all competition.

Modernity expected God to be disinterested; and if a judge, then a disinterested judge, on the model of one behind the bench of a British or American courtroom. But the biblical God is precisely not disinterested; his boundless personal investment in his creatures is his most determining characteristic. His law is not something he devises and administers, it is his active personal will, which thus defines also who and what he himself is. And therefore when it is flouted he must be personally offended. He is a lover and therefore jealous, for there cannot be an actual lover who is not jealous—the great climax of the Song of Songs, “love is strong as death, jealousy fierce as the grave” [Song 8:6], strictly and knowingly parallels love and jealousy. Christian theology dare not retreat a step from these claims, for as the gospel construes our situation, our only hope is God’s personal stake in the good he wills for us. (pp. 62-63)

Where there is the fire of the divine Love, there is the wrath of God. Lord, have mercy.

(Go to “Violent YHWH”)

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7 Responses to The Wrath of God and the Horrors of Divine War

  1. helix1977 says:

    Have you read Greg Boyd’s work on this in “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God”? If not, this interview gives you a hyper-compressed version of the argument. This is a very important issue.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Helix, sorry it took a full day to approve your comment. It got caught by the WordPress spam filter, which I only check once a week or so. I just found it this afternoon.

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  2. As Brad Jersek says, regardless of what we observe and even experience, we must never forget that the love of God is foundational. Things that might be possible here. First, keeping the nation of Israel from falling any further into apostasy and sin than they had already fallen, so that something worse may not happen, or they become unredeemable. Secondly to serve as a warning to those who would consider following the same path.

    Something else very important, the salvation program for the entire world, the whole cosmos, was wrapped up in national Israel and the promised Redeemer. If they had fallen any further could it perhaps have derailed the entire salvation program?

    How often have we witnessed what appears to be a horror to us as human beings becoming a great blessing to a multitude?

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    • Furthermore, Love is not content to leave the beloved to some imagined false or evil shadow of happiness, which is actually destructive and ruinous to the beloved. Some greater ruin may well be an act of Love to bring out of hell’s misery, mistaken for some good, that they may see truth and, perhaps, choose Love.

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  3. Grant says:

    Marcion’s sense that there is a conflict between God as He is revealed in Jesus the Messiah as opposed to various pictures in the Old Testament in their surface and superficial reading is correct, but he came to the wrong conclusion. In this he forgot what the Gospel and in them Christ Himself, and St Paul showed and gave us to understand and interpret the Old Testament, and so choose to reject it. Sadly many Christians have continued to make his same error from another direction, their affirm the Old Testament, but choose not to interpret it through and about Christ and the Gospel, and so try and make a distorted picture of God and terrify His own with it, creating a strange chimera monster out of it, bolting a god without mercy and curses and brings death and vengeance onto and in opposition to the One revealed in Jesus, even when this is said and shown to be explicitly not how God is. It is the practice of continuing to put a square peg through into a circular hole. In my view they perpetuate Marcion’s error even as they belief they avoid it.

    Christ told His disciples that prophets and kings had longed to see what they saw, but had not, and in most cases this could hardly be thinking about Christ whom for most of the generations in which these texts came into shape was not much of a concept, even a Messiah was for most of Israelite history not an active idea. So what is it they were longing to see, what they were longing to see and understand was God Himself, and they did not, not fully, what they saw and understood was interpreted in their current understands, they saw only shadows and lacked the key to illuminate and transfigure what they saw, experienced and interacted with. He is the Logos, and without His illumination they did not understand the oracles they received fully, only getting flashes and gleams of understanding, that just as easily confused, without Christ to bring it into focus, and could only interpret what they saw in the fallen terms they knew. As St Paul said, those Jews who did not believe yet read the Scriptures as if through a veil, and therefore all who do not read it through Christ and about Christ do not read it truly as Scripture at all.

    Christ Himself reveals this to Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, that all of the Old Testament Scriptures as about Him, that is what they have ever been about, and only then can you interpret them correctly and read it as Scripture, to try anything else is to return to reading them through darkness and put the veil over your eyes once more. As on Mount Tabor, Moses and Elijah are seen in Our Lord’s Transfiguration, and are themselves transfigured, the Law and the Prophets, likewise in what they represent, you only read Scripture as Scripture illuminated in Christ’s light and as about Him and the Gospel, as testifying to Him, and through Him. This is the interpretive principle He Himself as I see it has given the Church, only then is the veil lifted and the light communicated through it by the Spirit in Christ.

    And therefore, what are we to say to the apparent issue above, then those passages are not being read as about Christ, Christ shows us who God is in a manner we can understand, He reveals Him, to see Him is to see the Father, to see how He acts and is, is to see how the Father acts and is. In the Beatitudes He instructs and reveals how to life in the life of the kingdom and to be like God, because that is how God is (and lives this life Himself demonstrating this), and that is one who returns blessing for cursing, does not take vengeance but forgives and heals, loves His enemies and does good to them, heals instead of hurting (as Christ healed the very ear of the soldier who came to arrest Him and forgave those who crucified Him). And He reminds in this discussion that this is how God is is, who sends the rain to both the righteous and the wicked alike, and loves all, He reveals God to be love. He rebukes the sons of Zebedee for wanting to call fire down in judgement from heaven, and reveals that isn’t how God is, (and God does not change, as He is revealed in Christ is who and how God has always been, He doesn’t act one way before Christ and then another way afterwards). To me to read it as above in a way that contradicts how God is revealed in Christ is not read it as Scripture at all in my opinion.

    Instead St Paul shows how we should approach the Old Testament, here he interprets such passages as in the book of Isaiah which testify that all nations will bow and acknowledge the Lord but in what is envisioned a a violent and forced subjection of the pagan and Gentile nations, and similar Psalms which again on their own suggest the king of Israel (latter understood as Messiah) will conquer and smash the surrounding nations into subjection, violently bring God’s judgement. However, in St Paul, he sees and understands that in truth this is actually meaning the Cross and the Resurrection, the defeat of all the powers and of death itself, with death’s destruction being the final act of judgement and conquest, which is by the raising of all things out and beyond death. Of the liberation of all things and the reconciling in the cross of all things to God, until God is all in all. That the subjection of all things to God, is nothing less then to liberate all and free all from the slavery of death and to their true nature and freedom, and out of irrationality and diminishment, but into liberty, through forgiveness, reconciliation and resurrection through His self-giving Love. Freedom to God and into full, dynamic relationship to God is the very subjection that Isaiah’s scroll was trying to see. And that since only by the Spirit can one confess truly that Christ is Lord and to their salvation, that this cry is not one forced by brutal force but by liberating freedom, the freedom in and through the Cross and the Resurrection in which He reconcile all things to Himself, which is the judgement of this Cosmos, there God judged the world, that that judgement was forgiveness, salvation and reconciliation, that God has meant our fallen world and it’s ways with a different power all together, that of self-giving and all conquering Love. That is God’s judgement in action, and whether it be called allegorical or spiritual readings, and for me, to read the Old Testament, including the prophets otherwise, is as St Paul said, the read it with the veil still on, and at least from a Christian perspective, not to read and interpret it truly as Scripture at all.

    So Marcion was wrong, but to me, many in thinking they reject what he was saying, yet follow him in a sadly ironic manner, seeing to confirm his charge.

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  4. JGC says:

    Being someone who has a great interest in the Old Testament, as history and literature and theology, this is something I continually ponder and turn over in my mind. Why did Israel preserve Scriptures which speak so negatively, at least on the surface, though perhaps not as predominantly as we might think, of itself and its own relationship with its God? What value is there in speaking of oneself in such a way? On one level, the Exile, surely. But any Exilic theology must provide the grounds of hope and love – on what grounds should we trust this God in our distress, the “God of heaven whom they had come to know”? Surely in their everyday life, the ordinary Israelite did not believe, as the Prophets did out of the peculiarity of their message, that their Beloved was usually angry with them. Archaeology, I think, sustains that. The 5th century BCE Amherst Papyrus, which preserves a Northern Israelite liturgy, while Exilic, is abounding with confidence in the closeness of God. Surely, the majority of their spiritual life must have been like the some of the Psalms (like Pss. 42, 36, and 65), the early poems centering on happy occasions of childbirth and fertility and agricultural fecundity (cf. the Blessing of Joseph), and deliverance from distress, or the lovely domestic milieu of the Book of Ruth or the Patriarchs. In the Prophets, we have been left with the anti-type, the negative image, of our proper relationship with God, usually without the proper image supplied. We get snippets of what our proper relationship with God looks like, or was believed to be by ordinary people, from Hosea’s audience in 6:2, for example, which seems to have been a traditional liturgical refrain: “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up that we might before his face…As the dawn he will appear; he will come as the rain.” The Prophets sometimes, to our chagrin, spoil the lovely sentiments of their interlocutors, who honestly I wish we had more of their good cheer reported and less of the prophets’: “Woe to you who long for the Day of Yhwh!…It will be darkness and not light” (Amos 5:18). Well, I just wish Amos had told us about the light first before ruining their expectations. Why couldn’t he have told us about the good things?Nevertheless, the early writing prophet Hosea provided a clear image here of the ease and confidence which his audience thought they could return to the good favors of God. He disagrees, but clearly the majority of his interlocutors did not see Yhwh as Someone untrustworthy or petty.

    When we think of Yahwistic religion (rain, sky, and sunlight; fertility of flocks and people) in the everyday, I think it helps to see these types of “right-relationship” verses as our core to which the Prophets are responding. We tend to prioritize the Prophets and the Deuteronomistic History, but ordinary Israelites would not have known those. They would have known many of the Proverbs, too, if David Carr is to be believed. So, when they thought of Yhwh/El Shaddai, the domestic idyl is what they thought of. In a way, maybe we read the Bible backwards? We would like to dwell with Genesis 1-2 forever, the “thesis statement” of the Torah, but, given its comparative brevity, we are, like Adam and Eve, pushed inexorably into the veil of tears. I sometimes find myself not wanting to read to past Genesis 2:25 but limit myself to those very precious few first pages. The Torah, however, is tricky, depending on how one defines its relationship to Proverbs and the Histories – and we get stuck in Deuteronomy, which, intentionally, is the thesis statement, so to speak, of the Torah in its final form. Yet Yhwh’s flaming qana (jealousy or passion) here may be ambivalent. The fire can be wrathful, but I honestly wonder if there’s more to it than that. The Apocalypse of Abraham’s magnificent meditation (1st century AD) on the divine names, which I like to pray sometimes, based, in my opinion, on Deuteronomy 33, explains Yhwh’s “jealousy” as foundationally relational: “Lover of men, benevolent, bountiful/Jealous over me and very compassionate/Eternal, Mighty, Holy Sabaoth…You are he whom my soul has loved!/Eternal Protector, shining like fire/Whose voice is like the thunder/Whose look is like the lightning, All-Seeing…You, O Light, shines before the light of morning upon your creatures.” Deuteronomy’s own ur-text, Deuteronomy 33:3 calls him “lover of the peoples,” and also speaks of Yhwh as rising like light over creation, the word used for “love” being a cognate of “burning passionately.”

    With all the emphasis on the circumcision of the heart and cleaving to Yhwh as the source of life (“he is your life and your length of days in the land”), the living God, I wonder if the weirdly unique phrase “heart of heaven,” (the word leb can mean “midst” but also “heart,” “innards”), the seat and source of divine fire, is not somehow polyvalent, referring to the burning passion of God, depicted like lightning, for his people in a positive sense, like the lightning that illumines the earth, which “trembles/writhes” for him, maybe out of love rather than fear (I’ve seen this put forward elsewhere) in Psalms 29 and 97. After all, the Spirit, the heart of God and the wisdom of God (the divisions between Wisdom, Spirit, and Logos being fuzzier in the OT), itself “trembles” over the waters. There are those scholars, like David Carr and Stephen Geller, following Moshe Weinfeld, who see Deuteronomy as in conversation with Wisdom literature or even the Song of Songs. David Carr has defended an early date for the Song, and sees Hosea and Deuteronomy in dialogue with it. And, when that happens, suddenly that critical line in Songs 8 becomes the backdrop to Sinai, and the fire, while dangerous, becomes desirable and delectable, like the flash of lightning in Psalm 97. There’s that beautiful and mystical nugget in Isaiah 33, which, as in Hosea 6, is treated like a popular refrain, the context, and presupposed conception, against which the Isaiah made his foreground: “Who of us can dwell with a consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting flames? He who walks righteously…He will dwell on the heights; his refuge will be the mountain-fortress; his food provided, and his water assured. Your eyes will see the King in his beauty…a glorious one, a place of rivers and streams…For he is a revelation/coming forth, glorious, which may not cross…He will save us.”

    I’ve often wondered, maybe some of the other readers know (help!), how early and medieval Christianity developed as its aesthetic centerpiece the over-powering image of divine love as fire – so, for example, the iconography of burning hearts all over the place – or when we speak of hearts “on fire” for the love of God, or the love of God “burning,” because, except for a few intriguing places in the HB (like maybe Genesis 15, Psalm 77, Psalm 97, Job, and Jeremiah 10 – in the latter cases, divine fire seems, at least to me, to pass over into the register of the “light” of Genesis 1, and maybe fecundity, and thus have positive qualities?), fire and lightning is usually negative and destructive. Does that whole aesthetic tradition rest on Song of Songs 8, or the image of the brooding Spirit imparting warmth on the waters? Or, is it just a transhistorical metaphor? Love in the HB seems to be primarily rain, and sometimes light, language, but we don’t usually speak of the “rain of divine love.”

    Probably the worst thing ever to happen to the theology of the Old Testament, in my opinion, is the de facto de-canonization of the Song of Songs after the Reformation and Enlightenment, a whole book just meditating on love. The Song of Songs, it seems to me, provides the archetype against which the Prophets should be read, but, unfortunately, in our liturgy and hymnography, it seems to have been largely deactivated. In that book, and, in some ways, that book alone, we do in a literary sense get to dwell and meditate on Eden – but I have yet to see beginning OT theology textbooks, in high schools or undergraduate levels really seriously take Wisdom literature, especially the Song, as seriously as they do the Histories – which, in opinion, can do nothing but make for much thinner theology. Unfortunately, we have unduly prioritized the Histories and the Prophets. Robert Miller II (Catholic University of America), in his “Dragon Myths and Biblical Theology” in Theological Studies 80 (2019), recently made this point, which is that, partly in their effort to be scientific and empirical, and partly out of Protestant bias, 20th century biblical scholars and historians, following Von Rad, have to reduce the revelatory meaning of the Hebrew Bible “magnalia Dei,” the deeds of God in history. Even Vatican II’s Dei Verbum adopted that phrase as the core meaning of biblical revelation. The problem is, theologically, this means an implicit valuing of the raw events in Torah, the Histories, and Prophets against the mythical, liturgical, and sapiential – when in reality the Histories were as much written against the liturgical religion of the everyday. Unfortunately, much “biblical theology” has prioritized “magnalia Dei,” understood not to include creation for the reason that Genesis 1 and much Wisdom literature was shuffled off as “Canaanite” in origin in the mid-20th century, a foreign body to Judaism, which is not at all the case.

    All this being said, I cannot gloss over the darker aspects of the martial component which forms one facet of the Divine Kingship metaphor, alongside the more positive sides of the Just Judge, Compassionate Father, and Wise Craftsman facets. Grant, I think, is right that Jesus’ unconditional and netherworld-shattering love, the One who tipped the fulcrum of Psalm 22:28-30, should be the hermeneutical lens by which the veil is to be removed. At the same time, I think we have developed OT reading habits which have, unfortunately, made that veil even thicker by prioritizing certain aspects the OT over other parts by misreading the details for the thesis statements the Torah makes about itself – namely, Genesis 1-2 and, for the Hebrew Bible more generally, seeing the Prophets’ anti-typical rhetoric, a hideous distortion of the normative, as somehow normative lifeblood of Judaism, or even “Yahwism,” which is historically useful but theologically limited construct, rather than the joyful provision of, say, Psalm 65. Without the priority placed on divine love and the rationale for wanting to cleave to the God who is our life, as Robert Jenson so beautifully expressed, then one can end up with some scholars saying terribly distorted things, I forget who, like the Israel left one master to be a slave to another. I think the rabbis had it right who said “If the Torah had not been given, the Song of Songs alone would have sufficed to guide the world.”

    Just thinking of Ezekiel, though, I think this might be useful, too. I remember reading somewhere, can’t remember where, that Ezekiel really was the harshest of all the prophets, who intentionally limited the deep anguish and merciful compassion usually attributed to God, and the conflicted nature of God’s own heart about what is happening and will happen to his people, shown by other prophets, like Hosea and Jeremiah, or Lamentations, as a rhetorical device.

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  5. David says:

    I was born an evangelical Fundamentalist and the son of a Fundamentalist, so have no natural aversion to an angry God destroying a million people in the most hair-raising way possible. Forgive me, it’s just how I was raised. It rings true with who we were taught God is, after all. In my later years I have been granted to see but a glimmer of the glorious beauty of the man-befriending God and am enraptured at the realization and promise that he whom faithfully I have served all these years out of fear, neither needs nor wants my fearful service, but only the delight of my heart in his presence. I have been learning that this lover of mankind is the one who is revealed from the bottom to the top of the Holy Scriptures, and no less in this oracle of the Holy Prophet Ezekiel. Therein I will seek him, to whom I cling to my dying breath.

    If the first vision we are given in the Apocalypse of Ezekiel is that of the risen Jesus Christ, we can be thankful that our task begins so easily. For here we see the hermeneutical principle that the Scriptures are interpreted through the lens of Pascha offered to us in the very outline of the text – a hint from the prophet that this vision is the light that illumines and exposits the remainder of the text. If this is the risen Christ, then what of the judgments? Are these the work of Holy Friday and the harrowing of Holy Saturday? Do they speak of Christ’s judgment in his church – of binding and loosing and Satan falling from heaven? Do the prophecies correspond to the visions of the Apostle John, just colored differently by the intervening centuries?

    I suspect the answer to all of these is ‘yes’, but I want to go deeper. Archbishop Alexander Golitzin explains that the opening vision of Ezekiel trades in the imagery of contemporary Jewish mysticism. It is, as such, a vision of God descended on the heavenly chariot ‘wheels down’ on the earth. It is the Glorified Christ enthroned on the altar of the church and ultimately enthroned on the altar of the heart. And that is where I see what Ezekiel sees. Christ enthroned on the heart speaks, commands, executes judgment, thoroughly purges the land (of the heart!) of the rebel. He sends his messenger to save my life (3:18). He finds me by the waters of Babylon (3:15) where I have forgotten the beauty of the city of Jerusalem and thus find my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth. I have been given to strangers for a prey, I have been utterly polluted and despoiled, but the victorious one will come and overthrow the wicked king and again in the heart will be built the heavenly city, the temple of the Lord. May every mouth praise him.

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