Good Question...God is Wrathful, Vengeful, Jealous, and Angry every day--and you want me to have a relationship with Him?!

Initial Date: July 23, 2000; Last revision: July 25, 2000



The question of God's wrath (and associated images) are a topic of frequent questions, ponderings, and discomfort for many, and historically, a source of derision and disapproval from non-Christians. This issue is sometimes stated as a contrast between Wrath and Love, as this honest questioner notes:


With Galatians as my guide on Gods Characteristics I do not understand justice that requires a putting aside of most of the Holy Spirit traits and adopting a trait of the flesh (wrath).Why must justice do away with Love, Peace, Gentleness, Kindness and adopt the trait that is considered sinful (wrath)? Why cannot justice be dictated by these traits instead of abolishing these traits?


Often, of course, the issue is stated more starkly, with comparisons between God of the bible and angry Greek deities, capricious (and bi-polar or manic) ANE gods, or the worst sorts of humankind (those that lose their tempers when they don't get their way).


Unfortunately, the English language and western culture clouds this issue a good bit, since the concepts involved in the biblical portrayal of God (passages in which these words are used) are difficult to translate into single words.


What this means for us, is that we have to actually EXAMINE the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as wrath*.*, jealous*, and veng-a-whatever, and see what they mean in context.


The three major terms occur in various combinations (they seem to be closely related), but Nahum 1.2 is perhaps representative:


The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.



So, let's go through them one at a time: jealousy, wrath, and then vengeance:



But one quick piece of prolegomena (I promise it will be quick, really): the bible consistently portrays God as a passionate individual, whose inner experiences of love, compassion, grief, delight, joy, peace, anguish, and moral outrage at atrocity  dwarf ours in the extreme. The bible makes no apology for this, but rather exults in the Living One, in contrast to the dead and lifeless idols that surrounded its writers.


One scholar put it thus:


"The Bible speaks unashamedly of Yahweh's passion, presenting him as an intense and passionate Being, fervently interested in the world of humans. Not only is there no embarrassment on the part of the OT at Yahweh's possession of emotion, but rather, it is celebrated (see for example, 2 Sam 22:8, 9, 16; Ps 145:8). In fact, his passion guarantees not only that he is intensely interested in the world but that he is a person. This in turn opens up the possibility for communion at the heart of the universe. Therefore, his passion was seen to be continually linked with the implementation of his resolve, and in this, interaction with the world. The God of the OT desired fellowship and interaction with the other persons in his world, and his anger was seen to be part of the actualization of that desire. [NIDOTTE:4.280, s.v. "Anger: Theology"]


[This, I might add, is so fundamental to understanding the bible (and knowing God, obviously!)--although rarified versions of systematic and/or philosophical theology have been (and, are still) known to hold to varied forms of an 'impassible god'. Needless to say, such theological constructs have an interesting challenge in dealing with the wide range of anthropopathic language in the bible, and with squaring with our actual experience of a Personal God in our lives. The philosophical issues involved here are not germane--the question at hand is how the biblical data portrays God.]


For all the emotions I can think of, the bible takes the position that such emotions can be appropriate responses to situations OR inappropriate responses to situations (when the emotion is deliberately sustained, of course). Pity can be quite inappropriate (e.g., when it is the dominant emotion controlling how one deals with active, willful, violent oppressors, instead of for those being victimized by them), and outrage can be quite appropriate in situations of moral and human atrocity (e.g., child abuse, rape, violent crimes against the elderly, vandalism against the poor, extortion of the helpless).


Likewise, the bible argues that (like us people) emotions are not 'mutually exclusive and exhaustive' at any given moment. Just as my mom could have felt affection, anger, compassion, frustration, confusion, helplessness, hopefulness and despair(!)--ALL AT THE SAME MOMENT--when I was still a teenager living in her home (embarrassed grin), so too can we and so too can God. God is frequently described in these terms in the Prophets--His love for His people Israel (compassion and affection) is simultaneously experienced by Him as His anger (at their intra-Israel atrocities) and His hopefulness (that they will 'wake up' to treating one another better, in keeping with the Covenant contract they "signed" together as a community!). Hosea 11:8ff is so very vivid (and moving) in showing the struggles in the heart of God. There is no intrinsic contradiction in ascribing multiple emotional states to a person, since we consistently experience these in our lives. And God, as a Person, is apparently no different in that respect...


For example, God is said to be "angry with the wicked every day." Since "wickedness," in biblical terms, is generally related to treachery, atrocity, and oppression, I would HOPE God would be disturbed by this. But at the same time, the bible says that God is "patient" with them (hoping they will 'come around' and re-join the community in love and contribution) and even "nurturing" (i.e., leading them/influencing them in that direction). His moral anger at personal evil, of course, has nothing to do with Him being 'caught off guard' or surprised by it(!), since His response is the treachery involved--NOT the circumstances of it. Even my experience illustrates this aspect. I know quite well that in the future I will read (yet another) story of human atrocity, be it on an individual scale (such as rape, child abuse, or brutalization) or group scale (such as ethnic violence, religious persecution, or economic exploitation), so there is no element of 'surprise' in my response when I actually encounter the story. I KNOW I will be upset when I read it...



(see, I told you it was quick)





First, JEALOUSY...


 Jealousy is certainly an "odd" word to use of God--especially as a self-description (Ex 20.5; Dt 5.9)-- since this word is generally used negatively in today's culture and modern parlance.



1. "Jealousy" (in the biblical sense) is essentially a passionate commitment to someone, and their well-being:






2. It can be morally good or morally bad, depending on the motive behind the zeal:


"Both Heb. and Gk. words refer to an exclusive single-mindedness of emotion which may be morally blameworthy or praiseworthy depending on whether the object of the jealousy is the self or some cause beyond the self." [New Bible Dict.]


"God is often presented as a jealous God in the OT (Num 25:11; Deut 6:15; Isa 59:17; Ezek 5:13; 38:18–19). Jealousy in essence is an intolerance of rivals. It can be a virtue or a sin depending on the legitimacy of the rival. God would allow no rivals in the covenant between him and Israel. He bound Israel exclusively to his service and he swore to protect her against all enemies. [WBC, @Nahum 1]


"The term may be used in a purely descriptive sense to denote one of the characteristics of living men (Eccl 9:6), or in a derogatory sense to denote hostile and disruptive passions (Prov 27:4) or in a favorable sense to denote consuming zeal focused on one that is loved (Ps 69:9 [H 10]). [TWOT, s.v. "qana"]




3. It is important to note that divine jealousy is part of the 'fire' that is ardent love. In the Song of Solomon, for example, the Beloved desires to be the cause of such jealous zeal:


Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. 7 Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned. (So 8.6f)


The Bible Expositor's Commentary described this:


"In Old Testament times a seal was used to indicate ownership of a person’s valued possessions. So the beloved asked to be her lover’s most valued possession, a possession that would influence his thoughts (over your heart) and his actions (over your arm). Such a demanding request required the explanation which she gave in verses 6b-7a.


"8:6b-7a. These verses sum up the nature and power of the love depicted in the Song. It is as universal and irresistible as death, exclusive and possessive (in the sense of being genuinely concerned for the one loved) as the grave, passionate (as blazing fire) and as invincible and persevering as many waters and rivers. And all this is true because love is supported by the Creator who possesses all power. The words like a mighty flame are, literally, “like the very flame of the Lord” (cf. niv marg.). Thus the Lord is portrayed as the Source of this powerful love.


"8:7b. The final statement about the love depicted in the Song is that it is priceless. All one’s wealth would be totally inadequate to purchase such love. In fact such money would be . . . scorned, because love cannot be bought. Any attempt to “buy” love depersonalizes it.

If love is priceless, how then can it be obtained? The answer is that it must be given. And ultimately love is a gift from God.


This is a beautiful picture of the love that God has for His companions, and puts 'jealously' into an entirely different light. It is not 'insecurity' or 'self-interest', but rather a powerful emotion in support of loyalty and intimacy.



4.  We often fail to appreciate the intensity of this yearning of God's heart for us, but the OT prophets understood. Hosea gives us a disturbing look at the inside of the heart of God:


"But, besides using the picture of marriage, Hosea also used the picture of a father to describe Yahweh's unfathomable love for Israel, whom he loved in Egypt and drew to himself with bonds of love (11:1 ff.). Israel, however, turned away. So Hosea pictured the struggle, which he saw as going on inside Yahweh himself, as that between the jealous wrath of a deceived father and his glowing love: "How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy"  (11:8 f.). This description by Hosea of the passionate and zealous love of God is unprecedented in its boldness. For, according to Hosea, the God-ness of God does not express itself in destructive power, but in tender and compassionate love, which precedes any responsive human love, and which suffers through the faithlessness of his people (6:4) and does not hand them over to ultimate ruin. [NIDNTT, s.v. "love"]




5. Too often our English language makes "jealous OF" the default meaning for "jealousy"--instead of the biblical "jealous FOR". The "jealous OF" meaning is tantamount to envy and is NEVER ascribed to God. The "jealous FOR" (which seems odd to us users of modern parlance) is essentially the same in meaning as "zealous for protecting/maintaining our enjoyable and fruitful relationship of intimacy". The "jealous FOR" (in the context of His love for His people) usage is the one used predominantly of God:


Then the LORD will be jealous for his land and take pity on his people. 19 The LORD will reply to them: ‘I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully; never again will I make you an object of scorn to the nations.  (Joel 2.18, notice the link between jealousy and pity)


Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion,  15 but I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they added to the calamity.’ 16 “Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty. 17 “Proclaim further: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’”  (Zech 1.14, note also the contrast between "very jealous" and "very angry" and that it is aimed at mercy and blessing for His people)


Again the word of the LORD Almighty came to me.  2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.” 3 This is what the LORD says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the LORD Almighty will be called the Holy Mountain.” 4 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age.  5 The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there. (Zech 8.1, note that this jealousy produces closeness with God and benefits for His people)


Notice how different this meaning of 'jealousy' is from our modern, negative sense. This is a beautiful, passionate commitment to someone, not a petty, insecure, suspicious outrage.


[There is a distinct possibility that the translation "jealous" for the OT words should be dropped altogether, since the senses are semantically so far apart now: "More frequent are the passages that speak of God's zeal, when it means the intensity, the uncompromising involvement with which God deals with men. Some ETs have retained the possibly misleading rendering  'jealous'" (NIDNTT, s.v. "zeal")]



5. The NT Greek word for this is a somewhat ambiguous word zeloo (although this gets to the heart of the passion/energy in this concept). In Classical Greek, it could be positive or negative, depending on the goals:


"Zelos (from the Attic tragedians on) has zeal as its underlying idea, and means an emotional going out to a person, idea or cause. There are two clear meanings depending on the object of the zeal. Where the goal is good, zelos means eager striving, competition, enthusiasm, admiration, and in suitable contexts praise, glory. In a bad sense, the zeal has had a wrong goal and has become a defect; it then means jealousy, ill-will, envy. Accordingly, zelotes, zealot, can mean one seeking to reach good goals or a jealous man, an envious man. Equally, according to the context, the vb. zeloo can mean be zealous, consider fortunate, strive after or envy, be jealous." [NIDNTT, s.v. "zeal"]


And both senses appear in the NT:


"Both the good and bad senses of the word group are found in the NT. The bad sense of jealousy is found in Acts 7:9 (of Joseph's brothers); 5:17; 13:45; 17:5 (of the Jews'  jealousy of the apostles'  success, though the concept of zeal for God may be dimly perceived). Jealousy and strife are a deadly danger to the continued existence of a church (Jas. 3:16; cf. v. 14, 1 Cor. 3:3; 2 Cor. 12:20). A Christian must not show jealousy but is to walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 20) and deal lovingly (Rom. 13:13). The NT takes up a critical attitude not only to ethically reprehensible jealousy but also to zeal for the law. Thus Paul rejects his previous zeal  "for the traditions of my fathers"  (Gal. 1:14). It was just this "being zealous for God"  (Acts 22:3) that had caused him to become a persecutor of the church (Phil. 3:6). As he looked back, he recognized that he had acted as a pious Israelite who was not enlightened, as was the case with the majority of the Jews in his time (Rom. 10:2).


"But zeal in itself is not rejected. Quite the contrary is true. Paul rejoiced that "godly grief"  had produced repentance and zeal (2 Cor. 7:11), and he expressly called men to zeal, for it is good, if it is for Christ's sake, who himself was zealous for God (Jn. 2:17). He expressly praised the missionary zeal which surrounds others with good (Gal. 4:18, RSV "to be made much of"; cf. 2 Cor. 11:2, where Paul speaks of "a divine jealousy"). Especially there is the call to "earnestly desire" (zeloute) the gifts of the Spirit grace (charisma, 1 Cor. 12:31; 14:1, 12, RSV "you are eager" ; 14:39), which can be rightly used in love which is free of jealousy (1 Cor. 13:4). Finally, there is a positive zeal for the welfare of others (2 Cor. 7:7; 9:2), for the right (1 Pet. 3:133) and good works (Tit. 2:14), but here too love must take preeminence over zeal." [NIDNTT, s.v. "zeal"]



What should be clear from this is that Jealousy (biblical usage) is Not the same as Jealousy (modern, English usage). They are two very different meaning-complexes.


So, what we have here is NOT our customary meaning of "jealousy," but rather an expression denoting a passionate commitment, intense ardor, and protective love, in contexts of commitment and intimacy. God's jealousy is a sweet guarantee that His beloveds do not "drift away" into meager forms of life and unfulfilling modes of existence. He is a passionate Good Shepherd (to use the protective image) and totally loving-loyal Spouse (to use the intimate image). This kind of intense and loyal and active and trustworthy love is sought by all hearts...




Second, WRATH.


1. The first thing to note is that W is not primarily (or even generally) an emotion, when ascribed to God in the OT:


"But even though analogies are drawn from human anger, the wrath of Yahweh is portrayed somewhat differently from human anger in the Hebrew Bible. In some respects this is essentially the difference between 'passion' and 'pathos' (see Heschel, A. 1962. The Prophets. 2 vols. New York and San Francisco, vol. 2, esp. chap. 1).


"'Passion' can be understood as an emotional convulsion which makes it impossible to exercise free consideration of principles and the determination of conduct in accordance with them. Although the OT discusses human anger much less frequently than divine wrath, it tends to portray human anger as such as a loss of self-control and then censures it, particularly in the wisdom writings (Prov 14:29; 16:32; 19:19; 29:22; 30:33; Eccl 7:9; cf. Sir 1:22–24; 28:3), thereby echoing Egyptian wisdom teachings (cf. also Gen 49:7; Amos 1:11)...'Pathos,' on the other hand, is an act formed with care and intention, the result of determination and decision. It is not a “fever of the mind” that disregards standards of justice and culminates in irrational and irresponsible action; it is intricately linked to 'ethos' and approximates what we mean by 'righteous indignation' (Heschel 1962, 2: 5, 63). The wrath of God tends to be portrayed in this way in the OT, especially in the prophets; it seems not to be an essential attribute or fundamental characteristic of Yahweh’s persona but an expression of his will; it is a reaction to human history, an attitude called forth by human (mis)conduct. (REF:ABD, s.v. "Wrath of God")



2. Wrath is used of ANE deities/rulers in both these senses:


The gods/rulers of the ANE sometimes were examples of the "passion" meaning of this (ABD again):


"The most blatantly “mythological” texts of the ANE focus primarily upon the divine world and the interrelationships of the gods. In such texts, the anthropomorphic and anthropopathic portrayals of the gods tend to be especially heightened: deities become drunk, or sexually aroused, or frightened, or surprised, or overjoyed, or sullen and resentful, etc. Because of the apparent popularity of such myths in the ANE, there is good reason why deities in the various cultures surrounding Israel are often represented as aimless, fitful, and arbitrary, acting without purpose' (Albrektson, B. 1967. History and the Gods.: 89), and why those gods could often be portrayed as becoming angry  'for no good reason.' In such mythological portraits, the wrath of the pagan gods approaches a malicious and uncontrolled type of 'passion' which is often characteristic of an implacable personality (cf. Sophocles and Herodotus, who attributed to the Greek gods an almost whimsical inclination to harm mortals gratuitously, and Aeschylus and Pindar, who detailed the sexual passions that gripped Zeus and Poseidon)."


Examples cited:


·         "In the Myth of Atrahasis (HI:ANET, 104–106), the distemperate gods, led by Enlil (the storm-god), decide to obliterate humanity by means of a flood because the human race had multiplied to the point that its noise kept the gods (and particularly Enlil) awake at night.


·         "In the Epic of Gilgamesh (HI:ANET, 72ff.), it was Enlil who, 'unreasoning, brought on the deluge' and who was 'filled with anger' when he saw Utnapishtim’s boat and realized that his plans had been thwarted (XI: 168, 171). Indeed, in a recurrent ANE mythological type-scene, the angry god (in this case, Enlil) must be calmed down by other deities who fear that his anger is getting out of control (XI: 180ff.). Also in the Gilgamesh Epic, the goddess Ishtar (goddess of love/war) is portrayed as a spoiled adolescent who, when spurned by Gilgamesh, angrily yet tearfully implores her father Anu to destroy Gilgamesh because, in her words, 'he has heaped insults upon me (by) calling attention to my odious behavior' (VI: 80f.).


·         "The Egyptian gods also had their passionate tirades. In the Contest of Horus and Seth (HI:ANET, 14–17), the goddess Neith vows to get angry and cause the sky to collapse if her favorite (Horus) is not chosen to succeed Osiris; furthermore, the god Re-Har-akti goes off to brood when another god reminds him that no one worships at his shrines anymore. In yet another myth (HI:ANET, 10–11), the bloodthirsty goddess Hathor/Sekhmet goes berserk and almost annihilates the human race which is saved when other gods intervene, tricking her into believing that red-colored beer is human blood. In fact, in Egyptian mythological texts the god Seth is so vividly portrayed that he came to be known as 'the raging one' whose irrational anger against the ideal order (implied in the myth of Horus and Osiris) seems to represent all the chaotic aspects of the world (Te Velde 1967: 23–24, 101).


·         "In the Telepinu Myth of the Hittites (HI:ANET, 126–28), the god Telepinu becomes so angry that he cannot put his shoes on the correct feet before running away from home. The consequence of his anger is clear: drought and famine throughout the world. The reason for his anger, however, is not clearly stated, although it may have been prompted by a disagreement with his father. Regardless, his anger was only intensified when a bee found him asleep and stung him to awaken him.


·         "In Canaanite mythology, Anath appears to resemble Hathor as a goddess whose bloodthirst can scarcely be sated. In the Myth of Baal’s Defeat of Yamm (HI:ANET, 129–31), the god Baal, worried that he may be required to become subservient to the god Yamm, scornfully rebukes those gods who bow down to Yamm’s emissaries; when El orders him to submit to Yamm, he becomes so enraged (Ug <ansû) that he impulsively grabs a knife to slay Yamm’s emissaries. Significantly, he has to be restrained by Athtartu/Ashtoreth.



These gods, however, also could demonstrate the "pathos" side as well (ABD):


"However, other ANE texts—particularly those that (like the Bible) attempt to relate historical events to divine will—often portray the wrath of the gods as a type of 'pathos' legitimately occasioned by human offenses against the righteous will of those gods. In these texts, the anthropomorphisms are more restrained, and the anger of the pagan deities comes close to approximating that of the Israelite god Yahweh. The matter can be summarized as follows:


“If a defeat or the fall of a dynasty is regarded not only as the manifestation of divine anger but as anger at some transgression or negligence, then this implies also the view that the universe is in some way governed according to the laws of justice: it rules out the conception that the god’s actions are nothing but arbitrariness and whimsicality. . . . In Mesopotamia, as in Israel, the idea of historical events as a revelation of divine wrath or mercy for sins or godliness presupposes both that the deity acts in history and that the universe is ruled with justice” (Albrektson 1967: 103).


"In these texts, two types of human transgressions tend to provoke a god’s legitimate and 'official' wrath."



3. In the ancient world (both ANE and Greco-Roman), this 'wrath' --the pathos type--was a divine responsibility. The god was obligated to 'do wrath' on occasion:


"orge" (wrath) however, is also one of the most prominent characteristics of the Gk. divinities. The idea of wrathful gods is one of the basic factors of the majority of religions. (Mazdaism is an exception.)... Their anger was directed either against their own kind (e.g. Hom. Il., 8, 407) or against human beings (e.g. Hom., Il., 5, 177 f.; 24, 606). It was provoked as a rule by violation of one of the fundamental demands of life, morals or law. 'By it order is restored, assertion made good and destiny achieved. Hence the wrath of the gods is not just blind rage. It is seeing anger, and even in regard to man, via negationis, it confers dignity on him by marking him out or putting him in the limits set for him, thus making him what he is'  (H. Kleinknecht, TDNT V 385) [NIDNTT, s.v. "Anger, Wrath (orge)"]



4. As such, 'wrath' could be appropriate for those (humans) with community responsibility, but inappropriate for the common person.:


"Thus in Dem., Orationes, 24, 118, orge appears as the attitude which is particularly appropriate for a judge. It is positively evaluated as being in the service of righteousness. For the rest, however, anger is mainly seen as a character defect, which man should strive to lay aside. For anger as the expression of unrestrained passion stands in contradiction to reason, gnome (decision on the basis of knowledge), and logos (Word) and conflicts with the image of the wise man." [NIDNTT again]


" ojrghv, which already in tragedy is always seen to be protecting something recognised to be right, becomes in the political life of the following period the characteristic and legitimate attitude of the ruler who has to avenge injustice" [TDNT, s.v. "orge"]




5. In the case of the ANE deities, 'wrath' as pathos can be seen as their official duty, even though the texts themselves differ in character from the OT accounts. Thus, wrath (as pathos) looks like the responsibility of the deity, to his/her/its/their community:


"There is a strong formal similarity between these ANE depictions of divine pathos and that of Yahweh, who in the OT prophets and historical narratives is portrayed as being angry at Israel for its repeated violation of its covenant obligations. However, these ANE texts have obvious ideological functions that the OT lacks: they are self-serving documents written by kings seeking to legitimize their policies. In other words, in the Bible no political entity ever profits from the wrath of Yahweh. But the important point of similarity is that in these portrayals the 'personal' feelings of the god are not the force driving the anger; the driving force is rather the god’s 'official' duty to uphold the moral foundation for human political and social life. [REF:ABD]


In other words, personal emotion (inward-focused) could only play a small part in the equation/action--the main emotion was supposed to be a passion for re-instating the community peace and health (an outward-looking emotion)




6. When we compare the 'wrath' of YHWH with the 'wrath' of kings in the ANE (instead of only deities), the responsibility aspect can be seen more clearly [also present in deities functioning as kings]:


"But a comparison of Yahweh with other ANE kings may lead to some important nuances in our understanding of divine emotion. For example, on several occasions Sargon II is said to have acted “in a sudden rage” (HI:ANET, 286), and a rather stylized expression repeated by Ashurbanipal was “I became very angry on account of these happenings, my soul was aflame” (HI:ANET, 294, 296). In these and other (especially Neo-Assyrian) royal inscriptions and annals, “anger” is depicted as a royal prerogative essentially synonymous with “exercise of sovereignty.” The same can be said of the rage of the Egyptian Pharaoh, who “is Sekhmet against those who transgress his command” (HI:ANET, 431). Yet even though the subjects here are all mortal kings, still we are cautioned against taking too literally these references to anger. “Wrath” is not necessarily the king’s personal disposition but instead often appears to be a figure of speech referring to the king’s unapologetic intent to extend his domain into hostile territory. Royal “wrath” is not necessarily a personal or idiosyncratic emotion but rather a programatic orientation and, indeed, duty; it is a matter more of official policy than of private sentiment...Indeed, some references to the wrath of pagan deities seem to make sense in this regard—these ANE gods could also exhibit a type of pathos legitimately linked to their “official” responsibilities for maintaining the just government of the universe. Thus, Jacobsen has noted that already in the 3d millennium B.C. 'the gods, seen as kings and rulers, were no longer powers in nature only, they became powers in human affairs—in history' (1963: 479; emphasis added). In other words, their ragings were no longer analogous simply to that of the unpredictable and violent storm, fire, plague, war, or emotion; now they could be analogous as well to the calculated and disciplined control over human affairs. [REF:ABD]




7. This would make the Wrath of God into a duty of His, related to His commitment to His people. Wrath would thus be something at the end of an 'investigation' and 'legal process', as opposed to some sudden rage:


"Divine wrath does speak of his emotion, but it is not presented as mere feeling. Of the nearly 300 pericopes that speak of his wrath, only Exod 4:14 speaks of it as an emotion only. Generally, his wrath is synonymous with the implementation of his terrible judgment. This judgment is not presented as the angry responses of a powerful deity, but as judgment proceeding from a just, legal context.


"The preoccupation of legality in these texts can be seen in a number of ways. The Wisdom portions of the OT exercise great care in making sure that the individuals calling on God for judgment are themselves on the side of righteousness (e.g., Ps 7:9, 10, 12). In Job, Yahweh's wrathful justice in the world is celebrated as a just and rationally understood response to the evil actions of humans


"In the prophetic corpus, form critics have long noted that the reasons for judgment consistently accompanied the prophetic threat (especially in the written stage of tradition history, cf. Gunkel). In addition, though there is a heterogeneity of genres employed where Yahweh's wrath is mentioned, there is a consistent role for the place of divine wrath. His wrath always comes at the end of a clear legal procedure that makes it the implementation of judgment. There is often a summons, presentation of evidence (using a variety of means: accusation, lament, disputation, etc.), verdict (or pronouncement of judgment), and finally wrath, which always implies Yahweh's action (for examples see, Isa 42:18-25; Jer 6:9-15; Hos I 1: I -I 1; Zech 7:8-14). (Narrative literature follows this same procedure. Yahweh's wrath is justified with motive clauses; however, there is debate whether all pericopes can be justified)


"In addition to the justification of Yahweh's wrath, the motive clauses have another essential aim: They evidence rationality. They function to help the reader understand why Yahweh is angry. It is necessary to know why he is wrathful so as to know how to escape the consequences. This predictability was crucial for the encouragement of moral order and for a working philosophy of life that warded off despair and disillusionment. It freed humans of anxiety, while at the same time providing motivation for proper behavior. Order was understood to be at the foundation of existence, in part because judgment from Yahweh was neither capricious nor unpredictable [tn: compare the capricious nature of other ancient deities]. If there is unpredictability in Yahweh, it is in his extension of grace, not judgment. [NIDOTTE, s.v. "Anger: Theology", vol. 4]



8. And the dominant reason for this type of "government intervention", concerns how people treat other persons--often, a response to atrocity, cruelty, arrogance, and oppression:


"Almost all of the pericopes containing divine anger have some type of justification found with the expression of wrath, and these motivations can be divided into two basic categories. The first category, comprising nearly 51 percent of these pericopes, entails the wickedness of human beings in their behavior towards one another, or at least mentions the breaking of the statutes and ordinances of Yahweh that govern the interrelationship of humans. In the second category, close to 75 percent of the time, the motivation given is direct rebellion against Yahweh's person in the form of pride, syncretism, or blatant idolatry. Also, 33 percent of the time, both oppression of other humans and disloyalty or disrespect to Yahweh himself are found in the same motive clauses


"Several insights can be drawn from these statistics. First, though both major categories can be found together, Yahweh can be angry solely because of human cruelty (Exod 15:1-18; Mic 6:10-16). That Yahweh can be angry because of humans disregarding their natural sense of justice demonstrates that he cares about how people treat people. He is passionately concerned about the lives of human beings and whether justice takes place among them. These texts witness to an interfacing of ethics and theology.


"Since a large number of times rebellion against his will motivates Yahweh's wrath, Yahweh obviously takes his own person seriously, and it is dangerous for human beings not to do so (see e.g., Exod 32:7-14; Num 22:21-30; Isa 63:1-6).


"That these two basic motivations are mentioned so often together shows that Yahweh's concern for himself and for the human race are hard to separate (i.e., 2 Kgs 21:1-9; Isa 42:18-25; Jer 2:33-37).


"Moreover, the pericopes of Yahweh's anger against foreign nations, where the most prominent motivation is human cruelty, demonstrates that non-Israelites are judged on what they know and, therefore, can be justly held responsible for. [NIDOTTE]



9. Which leads us to the GOAL and PURPOSE of God "carrying out the judicial sentence"--i.e., fulfilling His duty to His subjects/community, to intervene in support of the community welfare and moral stability of the group.


In a nutshell, the purpose for which royal wrath is performed (it is the execution of a sentence, remember) is to re-instate the moral/civil/just order, by a restructuring event (or series of events), primarily dealing with removal of power (or existence) of the oppressors/treacherous.




·         "Various means are used to depict God’s wrath, but it always threatens the existence of those concerned. [TDNTlittle, describing mostly internal Israelite oppressors of the poor]


·         "The final aim of divine wrath is total destruction in the form of historical defeat and banishment from the land. [TDNTlittle, dealing with internal and nearby oppressors]


·         "It is perhaps significant that the first OT occurrence of God exhibiting anger appears in passages intimately tied to Yahweh’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Yahweh’s anger ( is kindled for the first time against Moses when the latter attempts to back out of his special calling as deliverer (Exod 4:13–14), and subsequently God’s rage () is celebrated poetically as the force that simultaneously consumed the pursuing Egyptians and delivered the fleeing Israelites (Exod 15:7). Thus divine anger first appears as Yahweh’s response not to generic human sinfulness but to whatever would impede efforts to free the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement. [REF:ABD, note that the restructuring is aimed at freedom for the oppressed Israelites. Once that is done, the wrath is no longer 'active' or needed.]


·         "The failure to provide the social justice implicit within the stipulations of the covenant also makes Israel liable to divine wrath (Ps 50:21–22; Isa 1:23–24; 42:24–25; Amos 8:4–10; Micah 6). [ABD; note that the wrath is designed to 'lift up' the poor and needy of the land.]


·         "Thus, God’s wrath is righteous because it destroys the wickedness that impedes deliverance (Isa 34:2), and for that reason psalmists repeatedly yearn for it (Pss 59:14 [—Eng 59:13]; 79:6). [REF:ABD, note that it is a means to an end--not an on-going state. The goal is deliverance.]


·         "His anger is always a lawful reaction to the violation of a law or to opposition against his historically-determined activity, in which he not only requites the violation or opposition, but also wills to effect the restoration and maintenance of the order set between himself and man."  (S. Plath, Die Furcht Gottes, 105; cited in NIDNTT, s.v. "orge"; note the 'restoration' intention)



10. God's attitude toward the actual performing of this duty is one of reluctance:


"God is often portrayed tempering his anger against Israel with compassion and love (Exod 32:12–14; Isa 54:7–8; Hos 11:8; Mic 7:18). It is important to note that Yahweh is depicted as having the desire to restrain his own anger, in contrast to the depictions of the various ANE deities, whose ragings often must be restrained (sometimes forcefully) by the intervention of other deities. An ancient liturgical formula that apparently does intend to describe the persona or “personality” of Yahweh extols Yahweh as “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Ps 103:8; Jonah 4:2). Despite its tragic necessity, however, anger is not depicted as an emotion God delights in; instead, it grieves God to be angry (Lam 3:33) and God would prefer to avoid it altogether (Isa 27:2–3; Hos 11:9). [REF:ABD]


"Yet God does not give free rein to wrath but is long-suffering (Ex. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18, etc.). He warns the people to repent, as the prophets bear witness. He is quick to show clemency. He can even exercise restraint in the case of Nineveh, to the disgust of Jonah (Jon. 4:2). " [TDNTlittle]


"God is not presented as a frustrated deity who finally loses patience, but rather as someone who is slow to anger. [NIDOTTE]


And even the verse we began the discussion with from Nahum:


The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;

the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.

The LORD takes vengeance on his foes

and maintains his wrath against his enemies.


is followed by statements of (a) His slowness to anger; and (b) His purpose in wrath on Nineveh as being 'refuge' and 'care' for Israel--a restructuring motif:



3 The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished.

His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.

4 He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry.

Bashan and Carmel wither and the blossoms of Lebanon fade.

5 The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away.

The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it.

6 Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger?

His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him. 

7 The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble.

He cares for those who trust in him,

8 but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh;

he will pursue his foes into darkness. 




11. "Royal restructuring wrath" is thus historical, finite, and catalytic.


The biblical witness discusses two "times" of wrath: that within 'normal' history, and that at the end of time ("eschatological wrath"). Israel (and selected individuals in biblical history) experienced "normal" historical wrath (esp. as a consequence of Blessings/Cursings of Deut). But the OT prophets and the NT writers speak of a future "day of wrath", an 'eschatological' restructuring, in which the violent and malicious are banished from the Son's kingdom, and the "meek inherit the earth." Jesus, as that eschatological judge, restructures reality--and reassigns people to their 'rightful state'. In the biblical sense of 'wrath', its final manifestation is a finite process at the end of 'normal' history, that (a) restructures the universe into a New Heavens and New Earth; and then (b) FORCEFULLY rescues/recompenses the abused and FORCEFULLY banishes the treacherous and malignant from that New universe. When this powerful intervention occurs, "the wrath of God is ended" (Rev 15.1). Divine wrath--in biblical usage--is the catalyst to creating the eternal 'configuration' of reality. Wrath produces the 'reversal of fortune' that characterizes several biblical themes. Once this is done--once for all--it doesn't seem to show up again. (see the discussion in "why did God go ahead with the plan?" relative to the Revelation 'torment' passages).


So, Stephen Travis (ABD):


"Hence wrath is associated not so much with final judgment as with the expression of divine judgment within history".


And TDNTlittle:


"The anticipation of eschatological wrath means that there is a present state of wrath (Jn. 3:36). This does not eliminate the eschatological element, but it raises the question whether wrath will finally be eternal. Greek thinking accepts this, the OT seems to question it in Jer. 3:12, and Judaism is uncertain. In the NT many passages support an eternal duration (Mt. 3:12; 18:34; Rev. 14:10), although the reference is to the punishment rather than the wrath."



[Eschatological wrath is still actually historical and earth-focused, and seems to end at the final judgment on earth. Judgment does not REQUIRE wrath per se--there are plenty of judgments in Genesis, but "wrath" is never used to describe those. Wrath MAY BE what 'sentences' us to our respective eternal states, but it is never mentioned in connection with any on-going events within eschatological hell. Whatever hell is like, its only biblical connection with 'wrath' is via the act of sentencing (Rom 2.8?).]



12. Human wrath/anger too easily becomes destructive, and so it is the subject of numerous OT/NT warnings. However, in itself anger--as an emotion--is not sin, but can easily become such (cf. Eph 4.26). According to Paul, divine wrath will come upon humans who develop, harbour, and attempt their own wrath (Col 3.5-9, cf. Rom 12.19: "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath"),  sorta like "taking the law into your own hands". This is best left in the hands of a 'slow to anger' and 'only wise' God...



The semantics, therefore, end up similar to that for jealousy: the biblical words seem quite different from the modern usages:


Wrath (biblical) maps to (1) moral outrage at atrocities against people/community (modern); and more frequently maps to (2) vigorous and powerful  intervention in the status quo, aimed at overthrowing oppression and treachery (modern). Neither of these would be very close to the modern English usage of wrath ("extreme anger") unless the minor meaning in scripture (#1)--moral outrage at atrocity-- could be seen as a legitimate and positive response on the part of moderns.



So, what we have is that (a) the emotional component of SOME wrath/anger expressions amount to "moral outrage at true atrocity" [which I hope EVERY reader of this has!]; but the dominant biblical usage of 'wrath' is (b) the vigorous and welfare-motivated intervention by the Royal God, in breaking oppression and delivering His "dependents", by forceful removal of the habitually and aggressively treacherous from their lives, and by a re-structured reality, characterized by blessing and peace for the good. This is indeed the hope of the abused, the exploited, the victimized, the violated everywhere...that the good-hearted God would see all this in history, and say once again--with reference to a wider group-- "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.  So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land"...





Finally, VENGEANCE...



This is another word that has undergone such a radical shift in connotation (if not denotation) that it is questionable if the biblical words (NQM/ekdike) should even be translated this way.


Consider the opening remarks of Peels' definitive work on the subject [OT:VG:1f]:


"The notion of the vengeance of God confronts both the average reader of the Bible and the advanced theologian with significant problems. How is it possible that God's actions, particularly in the Old Testament, are frequently and boldly described with such an ethically loaded term? This question implies a problem that has both a linguistic and theological dimension.


"In contemporary language usage the term 'vengeance' has acquired a pejorative connotation through its affiliation with self-centered, illegitimate and even immoral action. The emotional, empathetic dimension rules; intuitively 'vengeance' is connected with hatred, wrath and lust for revenge....The English word  'vengeance' indicates 'the most furious and unsparing revenge'. The synonym 'revenge' emphasizes more the personal injury in return for which it is inflicted'. Accordingly, 'revenge' often has the implication of personal retaliation, bitter and sometimes excessive conduct.'...


"From an historical perspective, it is understandable that the term 'vengeance' in modern language is employed as a destructive force, thereby creating a strong tension between vengeance and justice. Where the over-arching Organisation of the state provides its own system of justice (with establishment, arbitration and enforcement of laws) vengeance as the private enactment of justice will necessarily be less and less tolerated. As long as private punishment has not been curbed and replaced by public enforcement of justice, it is difficult to realize a situation of ensured justice in the communal living. From a juridical perspective vengeance is viewed as a phenomenon that in principle belongs to the underdeveloped stage of the legal system.


"In the light of these observations it is not surprising that the Old Testament references to God's vengeance cause misunderstanding and offense. As a result of the meaning attributed to the word 'vengeance',  intuitive or subconscious associations (e.g. with gods of vengeance) are all too easily drawn. The negative connotations of the word vengeance hinder a proper understanding of the intention and meaning of the theologoumenon of God's vengeance. Therefore, it is necessary to research what the Old Testament authors themselves understood with respect to the vengeance of God."



Or NIDOTTE (s.v. "nqm"):


"In view of the history of exegesis (Marcion!) it is of great importance to understand the OT preaching of God's "vengeance" correctly. For modern man the word "vengeance" has strongly negative connotations (immorality, arbitrariness, illegitimacy, cruelty); "vengeance" and love are antipodes. In the OT, however, the concept of "vengeance" has a positive connotation, both from a semantic as well as from a theological point of view': "vengeance" has to do with lawfulness, justice, and salvation.



Again, we might expect to find that vengeance (biblical) is NOT THE SAME AS vengeance (modern)...especially because of its close association with jealousy and wrath (definitely misunderstood terms, as noted above)...


So, let's dive in...


1. The first thing to note is that 'vengeance' in the BAD sense DOES occur in the bible, and it is recognized as being bad:


"VENGEANCE. The verbal and nominal forms normally translated as “to avenge, vengeance, etc.” fall into two categories of definition: (1) the rendering of a just punishment upon a wrongdoer or the recompense given to the victim of the wrongdoing; (2) vindictive revenge inflicted by wicked people upon the innocent.  [Pitard, ABD, s.v. "Vengeance"]



2. The second thing to note is that the latter meaning--vindictiveness--is EXPRESSLY forbidden in the OT:



"Passages (applying to humans) in which vengeance connotes revenge or vindictiveness (Lev 19:18; Ps 8:3; 44:17; Jer 20:10; Lam 3:60; Ezek 25:12, 15). In these texts nqm expresses a destructive and hateful attitude that leads to revengeful acts. Retribution in its proper sense plays a minor role in these texts. This sort of vengeance is prohibited in Lev 19:18. [NIDOTTE, s.v. "Retribution: Theology of"]


Lev 19.18 reads:


Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (NIV)

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (NAS)

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (NRSV)

Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD (NAB)


Peels summarizes the negative content of NQM [The Hebrew word translated 'vengeance' most often] in these passages [OT:VG:60]:


"The texts discussed under this sub-heading employ the root NQM as a reference to a hostile and destructive attitude, along with the resulting relationship towards another person...The translation 'vindictiveness' or 'revengefulness' is most appropriate...In all these cases NQM has a negative connotation."




3. When applied to gods, however, the word can take on similar content as that of 'wrath'--a responsibility to protect a dependent and doing so in a 'legal process' manner. This can be seen from the ANE data, the Greek word usage background, and the actual patterns of usage in the OT.


·         "Mendenhall made a thorough study of the root NQM in the OT and in other Ancient Near Eastern texts and concluded that in only a very few instances is the term used of blood vengeance on the part of an individual. Most of the time it refers to judgment of a group or God to defend one of its/his own. Mendenhall emphasizes the importance of the covenant background to a proper understanding of the use of this term in the OT. Since Israel was Yahweh’s covenant people, he was acting in her behalf in destroying Nineveh (1:13; 2:1).[WBC, Nahum, 1.1f]


·         "But the much more common word with the same content in the Gk. language is ekdikazo (Aristoph. onwards) which means to decide a legal case, punish, avenge.... The juridical use of edkikeo in the papyri is also important. Here it means to decide a case, work as an advocate, defend or help someone to obtain his rights. [NIDNTT, s.v. 'dike']


·         "The concept of vengeance in the Bible is complex and multi-faceted. Although the English term, “vengeance,” has generally been perceived as having a negative or pejorative connotation, the concept designated by the root nqm in the Hebrew Bible is generally presented in a positive light as a type of action appropriate (with certain limitations) to humans and particularly to God. The term, nqm, appears to have developed its central meaning in the context of judicial language. Most of its occurrences are found in passages which have at least a vague legal theme, in which the “vengeance” is viewed as the rectification of some misdeed...In these (legal) passages nqm always refers to the just punishment meted out to a wrongdoer or to the damages or recompense awarded to the victim of the crime. This is not to be seen as malicious or vindictive retaliation by the wronged person, but rather as a just recompense for a crime. [REF:ABD]


·         "The varied use in the [Greek] papyri reveals a more positive conception linked to the juridical exercise of dike. The reference is always to legal action. Thus ekdikein means “to decide a case”: P. Oxy.,VII, 1020,6 (2nd/3rd cent. A.D.); “to contest at law”: Gk. Pap. of the Lib. of Strassburg (ed. Preisigke, 1906 ff.), 79, 7 (1st cent. B.C.). The sense of “to bring someone to judgment” ( supra on Ez.) is later: P. Gen., 47, 17 (4th cent. A.D.). The commonest use in the pap., comparable with Lk. 18:3, 5; R. 12:19, is for “to fight, to defend, or to plead someone’s cause,” with an acc. of person or object: Gk. Pap. of the Lib. of Strassburg, 41, 9 (3rd cent. A.D.); P. Amh., 134, 10 (2nd cent. A.D.) Later ekdikein tina in the pap. often means “to help someone to justice.” [TDNT, s.v. "ekdikeo"]


·         "ANE: The root nqm is of WestSem. origin and is well attested in Late Aram., Arab., and Eth. languages. Regarding the literature that historically speaking coincides with the OT period, nqm appears in the nomenclature of the second millennium BC (expression of the hope of divine protection?), in two Mari letters (in the, context of criminal law), and in two Aram. documents: Sefire III (in the context of covenant law) and a legal text from Elephantine (in the context of sacral law). The root does not occur in the Armana literature (cf. W. T. Pitard, 5-25; versus G. E. Mendenhall, 69-104, and J. N. Musvosvi). The word group nqm seems to have been preferred for its legal connotations and should, therefore, be associated with the maintenance of justice. [NIDOTTE, s.v. "nqm"]


·         "The root nqm is used 79x; in ca. 85 percent God is subject, either directly or in a derivative sense. In the OT, nqm is normally God's prerogative or that of the people used by him as instruments (judge, king, court, people). The idea of legitimacy and competent authority is inherent in the root nqm. In the case of (human) individual or illegitimate revenge, the use of nqm is either avoided or this vocable is given a negative semantic value because it lacked God's legitimation. Nowhere in the OT does nqm refer to blood-vengeance" [NIDOTTE, s.v. "nqm"]


One example of standard juridical Hellenistic use, from Luke 18--the parable of the importunate widow:


"Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, 2 saying, “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God, and did not respect man. 3 “And there was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection [ekdikason] from my opponent. 4 “And for a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection [ekdikeso], lest by continually coming she wear me out.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge *said; 7 now shall not God bring about justice [ekdikasin] for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? 8 “I tell you that He will bring about justice [ekdikasin] for them speedily.



As can be seen, this notion is clearly judicial, and seems to be focused on helping those deprived of rights or property, and especially those under oppression or violence.




4. Understood this way, NQM/ekdike is NOT 'opposed to love' in any sense, and the often-assumed dichotomy between the OT "god of vengeance" and the NT "god of love" cannot be sustained from the biblical data.


·         "This group of nqm texts is closely related to the imprecatory psalms (Ps 7; 35; 58; 59; 69; 83; 109; 137; 139 are often cited examples, although imprecatory statements appear in numerous other psalms), which call for divine judgment on the ungodly. The imprecations in these psalms have often been viewed as expressions of personal hatred and explained as a manifestation of a low level of religious and moral maturity in the OT. Some have then contrasted these statements with NT commands to love one's enemy (Matt 5:39, 44; Rom 12:14) as a basis for concluding that the NT abandons the OT concept of vengeance and calls for a higher ethic grounded in love rather than hate. This sort of antithesis between the Testaments, however, cannot be sustained. The OT not only enjoins an ethic of love and forbids revenge (Lev 19:17-18), but clear statements on the vengeance of God may also be found in the NT (cf. e.g., Matt 25:41; Acts 8:20; 13: 10-1 1; Gal 1:8-9; 1 Cor 16:22; Rev 6: 10). In addition the NT speaks even more clearly than the OT about the reality and seriousness of the wrath of God (cf., e.g., 2 Thess 1:5- IO). [NIDOTTE, s.v. "Retribution: Theology of"]


·         "Because of the OT expressions of just hatred against God’s enemies who also sought to destroy his people (Ps 54) we tend to feel that the OT teaches one must always hate his enemies. That this is not true may be seen from Paul’s quotation of Prov 25:21–22 in Rom 12:20. “But if thine enemy hunger feed him.” etc, The ancient Hebrews, like many modern Christians, misapplied the doctrine of divine vengeance and used it as an excuse for harboring vengeful feelings against each other. In Mt 5:43ff. Jesus was rebuking this misapplication and in such places as Mt 19:19 (cf. Mk 12:31) he is really quoting Lev 19:18. “You shall not avenge or bear a grudge against the children of your people but love your neighbor as yourself, I am the lord.” [TWOT]



Indeed, the reader would probably have noticed that the verse that prohibited the Israelites from personal vindictiveness (Lev 19.18) contains the great Love verse quoted by Jesus as one of the two great commandments:


You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (NAS)


Even in the OT legislation, God placed so many limits on punishment--apparently to limit how much (modern) vengeance would be taken within the community. Even the often-maligned lex talionis (i.e., 'eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth', even though it was not understood literally, but was "same value" compensation-based in most cases) was actually a restriction on excessive punishment within Israel, as we now know quite well:


·         "The penalty for criminal assault resulting in serious or permanent injury was stated in terms of the lex talionis, i.e. the same injury must be inflicted on the offender. 'If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe'  (Exod. 21:23 ff.; cf. Lev. 24:19 f.; Deut. 19:21; Matt. 5:38). This was much less severe than the Middle Assyrian laws (cf. ANET, 186), and, in fact, what the OT appears to be doing here is to establish a principle of equity so that punishments fit the crimes. [NIDNTT, s.v. dike]


·         "According to the laws in chaps. 17–26, two qualities are the girding pillars of a holy life, i.e., justice and love. Justice means equity. This is stated fundamentally in the principle of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life (24:20). This principle does not imply that punishment was carried out by inflicting bodily injury in kind, but that punishment for harm to a person is to be commensurate with the harm done, not greater, as revenge dictates, nor less, as indulgence desires. This principle was a great advancement in law codes, for it raised personal injury from a civil tort to criminal law, increasing the social worth of a citizen. Throughout these laws the worth of each person is affirmed. [WBC, Leviticus, Intro]


·         "The occurrence of lex talionis in the OT used to be quite embarrassing to interpreters who viewed it as a remnant of a barbaric society. Recent study, however, has turned this opinion on its head. Scholars have discovered that the laws of Eshnunna (§42–48) and the laws of Ur-Nammu (§15–19), which predate the Code of Hammurabi by a few centuries, set fines for personal injury. Only injuries against the gods and the king were treated seriously. Later the laws of Lipit-Ishtar and the Code of Hammurabi introduced the principle of lex talionis. Thereby these law codes elevated injuries against persons from purely civil torts to criminal law... [WBC, Leviticus, @24.19]


·         "The purpose of the principle was not to allow for revenge but rather to prevent it. The force of the principle was to ensure that a given crime was punished only by a just penalty. It prohibited a penalty that went in excess of the severity of the offense. Like the laws establishing the cities of refuge, the principle of lex talionis was to prevent the escalation of an offense in blood revenge. [EBCOT, Gen 4.19]


·         "Although popularly dismissed as a vestige from a primitive era, the principle of lex talionis, which is also found in extrabiblical literature, both ancient and modern,  actually marked a significant advance in the history of jurisprudence." [NIDOTTE, s.v. KWH, 'burn']


[Minor technical note: Some bibles have the phrase "avenger of blood" as the translation of goel haddam, but this is NOT correct. Goel is 'redeemer' NOT 'avenger' and NQM is NEVER used in passages relating to goel haddam. Literally, goel haddam means 'redeemer of blood', and even as the court appointed executioner for capital crimes before the institution of the monarchy, is NEVER associated in the text with NQM. See OT:VG:75-86 for discussion.]



5. If this vengeance is actually some kind of legal action on behalf of someone, then what kinds of actions are the objects of this legal movement? And what are the goals of such action?


·         "The prophet Amos announced the punishment of the surrounding nations for their crimes against humanity (Amos 1 and 2), but this culminates in the announcement of the punishment of Israel for his transgressions in the form of idolatry (Amos 3:14) and the crimes committed against fellow Israelites (Amos 4:1 ff.) [NIDNTT]


·         "2 Thess. 1:9 uses it of the punishment of eternal destruction meted out to those who oppress the community [NIDNTT]


·         "Divine vengeance is particularly invoked upon external enemies who oppress Israel, on the upper class which has unlawfully enriched itself at the expense of the humble, on those who have been unfaithful to Yahweh, and on those who seek to injure the faithful individual. Again, these announcements of or calls for God’s vengeance generally are not to be construed as calls for vindictive action by God, but rather should be understood as appeals for justice. God’s vengeance will restore the balance which has been upset by wickedness. God is asked to, or announces that he will, bring about a just punishment for the guilty and compensation for the victim (cf. Ps 94:1–2; Jer 51:34–37; Isa 35:4; Ps 79:10). Because of its relationship to justice, the divine vengeance can be described both in terms of encouragement to the oppressed, as in Isa 61:1–4, or in harsh terms of punishment, as in Psalm 58. [REF:ABD]


·         "God's vengeance is usually disciplinary in nature and aims at the restoration of lawfulness and the covenant in order that Zion will turn into a "city of righteousness," a "faithful city" (Isa 1:24-26), again. God's vengeance calls to a halt the wickedness and the crying injustice in Zion (59:17-18). [NIDOTTE: nqm]


·         "Usually God's "vengeance" is turned against the nations because they attempt to reach out for world power in their unlimited lust of power: Assur (Nah 1:2), Babel (Isa 47:3; Jer 50-51), Egypt (Jer 46:10); because they recklessly rise against himself and injure his honor (Deut 32 from v. 26; Mic 5:14); and because they try to destroy his people Israel (Num 31:2; Deut 32:35; Jer 50-51 passim; Ps 79: 10). There is often a close relationship between vengeance over the enemy and the salvation of God's people: one is the reverse of the other, as, e.g., in Isa 34:8; 35:4- 59:18; 61:2; 63:4; Jer 51:36; Nah 1:2; cf. 1: 15 [2: 1 1). God's vengeance marks the turn from destruction to restoration, from injustice to peace, and as such can be the object of joy (Ps 58:1 1) or contents of worldwide jubilation (Deut 32:43). More and more God's vengeance gets eschatological purport in the prophetic teachings: one day God's vengeance will prepare the way for the new Zion (Isa 34:8; 61:2); all obstacles for perfect joy and peace will be eliminated by God's vengeance (Ps 149:7; Mic 5:14) [NIDOTTE: nqm]


·         "Isa 1:24 ("I will get relief from my foes and avenge myself on my enemies") describes how God will restore justice to the city of Zion (vv. 26-27). Here again nqm is used in a legal context, but the surprising thing is that the "foes" and "enemies" on whom the Lord will avenge himself are not foreign nations, but the Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem. Although the evil of God's own people cannot be tolerated by a righteous God, here, as in Lev 26, the purpose of the divine vengeance is their redemption (v. 27: "Zion will be redeemed with justice"). Isa 59:17 contains a similar message." [NIDOTTE: "Retribution: Theology of]


But one of most "vocal" passages, declaring God's NQM comes from Deut 32:35, 41,43. Let's cite these isolated verses first, then fill in the verses between them.


35: Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip;

For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.’


41: If I sharpen My flashing sword, And My hand takes hold on justice,

I will render vengeance on My adversaries, And I will repay those who hate Me.


43: Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants,

And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people.”


Now, with the intervening verses:


35 ‘Vengeance is Mine, and retribution, In due time their foot will slip;

For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.’

36 “For the Lord will vindicate His people, And will have compassion on His servants;

When He sees that their strength is gone, And there is none remaining, bond or free.

37 “And He will say, ‘Where are their gods, The rock in which they sought refuge?

38 ‘Who ate the fat of their sacrifices, And drank the wine of their libation?

Let them rise up and help you, Let them be your hiding place!

39 ‘See now that I, I am He, And there is no god besides Me;

It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded, and it is I who heal;

And there is no one who can deliver from My hand.

40 ‘Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven, And say, as I live forever,

41 If I sharpen My flashing sword, And My hand takes hold on justice,

I will render vengeance on My adversaries, And I will repay those who hate Me.

42 ‘I will make My arrows drunk with blood, And My sword shall devour flesh,

With the blood of the slain and the captives, From the long-haired leaders of the enemy.’

43 “Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants,

And will render vengeance on His adversaries, And will atone for His land and His people.


Notice that the vengeance is coming, because of His compassion on His people. And that the other nations of the world will celebrate the execution of this vengeance as well--the freedom from the tyranny of the oppressor.


Even some of the more 'violent' images of God in the OT link vengeance/wrath as a means to deliverance for His people. So Is 63:


Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson?

Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength?


“It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” 


Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress? 


“I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me.

I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath;

their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing.

For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year of my redemption has come.

I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support;

so my own arm worked salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me.

 I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk

and poured their blood on the ground.”  





Peels gives the following purposes of God's NQM [OT:VG:283, parenthetical explanations mine]:


1.        Restoration of the covenant (moving the community back into peace, harmony, celebration, prosperity)

2.        Maintenance of justice (providing a reliable and responsive social/civil context for community life and development)

3.        Discipline (for correction and reclamation of wayward elements within the community)

4.        Refining (for growth in personal and communal integrity and righteousness, producing higher levels of peace and celebration and significance)

5.        Liberation of God's servant (or the faithful in) Israel (restoration to freedom, from bondage or oppression)

6.        Recognition by the nations (reducing the international attacks on Israel, and allowing Israel's knowledge of God to influence surrounding nations)


Notice that these goals are all exceptionally constructive and/or reconstructive...These end-goals are things universally sought by us...


NIDOTTE points out that salvation is most often the goal of vengeance. Vengeance is never simply an 'end'; it is a means to an 'end'.


"Particularly important for this whole class of texts are the nqm statements in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:35, 41, 43). In this song, which Moses taught the Israelites in the Plains of Moab (cf. 31:19), Yahweh warns his people that if they turn away from the covenant, he will turn away from them and bring the covenant curses upon them, including the exile (vv. 23-26). But it is not only on his wayward people that God will bring judgment. In due course the enemies of Israel, who are the instrument of Yahweh's judgment on his own people, will also be judged for their pride and unbelief (vv. 27-33, 41-43). It is this judgment on Israel's enemies that is described in the Song of Moses as Yahweh taking "vengeance" on his "adversaries" (vv. 35, 41, 43). Here vengeance evidences both the justice of God (cf. lsa 10:5-19; Jer 25:8-14) and the means of deliverance for his people (Deut 32:36-39). For this judging and punishing work of God, all people are called to "rejoice" (v. 43), for vengeance means both justice and redemption (v. 43b). These concepts are echoed in varying ways in all the other passages in this group.


"A clear example of these ideas is found in Nah 1:2. Here in the introduction to a hymn of praise to Yahweh for judging his enemies (in this case, Assyria; vv. 2-6) and bringing salvation to his people (vv. 7-8), the divine name Yahweh is linked three times with the participial form of nqm (cf. Ps 99 and lsa 6, where Yahweh is said to be "holy" 3x). Yahweh is further described as "slow to anger," but he will "not leave the guilty unpunished" (Nah 1:3). God works in history with the same awesome power he displays in nature (vv. 4-6). Here, as elsewhere in the nqm texts, vengeance and deliverance are linked. This passage also makes the important assertion that God's wrath and goodness do not contradict each other (vv. 2, 7).


"In all the texts in this category nqm represents punitive retribution against nations that either oppose Yahweh and his people (Ezek 25), express an inordinate thirst for political power beyond their borders (Assyria, Nah 1; Babylon, Isa 47; Jer 50-5 1; Egypt, Jer 46), or exalt themselves in human pride and arrogance against Yahweh (Deut 32; Jer 50-51; Mic 5; Nah 1). This vengeance, however, is linked with God's deliverance of his own people (Isa 35; 61), and in cases where the enemy nation assumes typical significance (cf., e.g., Edom, Isa 34:8; 63:4) it points to an eschatological context for its realization."



Peels points out this "means to a omni-desired end" character [OT:VG:295]:


"The fact that God's vengeance stands in the service of salvation is the most evident from the longing for and joy concerning this vengeance, in which there is, incidentally, no trace of malice. The nations of the world rejoice over the vengeance of God, who brings atonement (Deut. 32:43). The vengeance prepares the way for eternal joy in Zion (Isa. 34-35) and is one part of the content of the good news (Isa. 61). The book of Nahum concludes with the universal joy. The vengeance of God brings comfort, relief and hope (Ps. 58, 79, 94), and it takes away the final barrier for the eternal praise of all creatures (Ps. 149)."




A good example of how this vengeance is (a) defensive; and (b) punitive at the same time comes from the story about Moses and the slaying of the Egyptian. Acts 7.24 reads (literally):


"And having seen someone being treated unjustly, he defended and brought justice [ekdikasin] for the one being oppressed, having struck down the Egyptian."


And a verse or two later, Moses is accused of making himself a "ruler and a judge". This is the very pattern of vengeance: a responsible party (ruler) sees oppression of a fellow community member/companion, and makes a legal decision to forcefully intervene, to rectify the situation.



What this nets out to is the actions against which vengeance is targeted are acts of oppression, violence, malice, treachery, and atrocity. And the goal of vengeance is deliverance of the oppressed, abused, victimized from their tormentors, and (in some cases) restitution/recompense to them from the wealth and riches of their oppressors.


Indeed, the biblical data on this is staggering (and quite moving)...the things that God targets are things we could do without quite well...and His word is very clear on this...




6. Given that vengeance seems to be this restructuring event (somewhat similar to wrath), it is no wonder why the poor and troubled of the world cry out to God for His intervention in this way (remember the parable of the Importunate Widow):










7. In fact, the cry for justice and NQM appeals to the same Heart that holds back as long as possible:


"God's vengeance upon the enemies of his people is usually directly connected with his liberating love for and protection of Israel. In Deut. 32:35 this is celebrated expresses verbis, and in the diptych of Isa. 34-35 it is broadly expanded. The vengeance upon Babylon in Isa. 47 and Jer. 50-51, too, has as its reverse the deliverance of Zion and the nations. This is even stronger in Isa. 59-63, where God in his coming as Deliverer for Zion and as treader of the winepress of Edom is wrapped in armour, which consists of two parts (salvation and vengeance). The situation is the same in Nahum 1, where YHWH is confessed in his vengeance, jealousy and wrath on the one hand, and in his long-suffering and goodness on the other hand...It is especially evident in the psalmic literature that the Old Testament belief in the God of faithfulness and love at times comes under pressure, not because of the realization of God's vengeance but because of its absence.


"In the Old Testament, God's vengeance and God's love are not clashing, irreconcilable descriptions. However, it is equally impossible to define the connection between these two 'sequences' in a single closed theological framework. The proclamation concerning the living God ultimately and finally defies a logical systematization. Between the vengeance and the love of God there is no contradiction, but sometimes there is a tension; the most pregnant indication of this is in the change of God's heart in Hos. 11:8. There is no balance between vengeance and love; the preponderance of God's faithful love is evident in the whole Old Testament. He delights  to enact loving kindness, justice and righteousness on earth (Jer. 9:23 MT), and He has no pleasure in the death of the godless (Ezek. 33: 1 1). A moment of his wrath does not detract from his eternal love (Ps. 30:6; Isa. 54:7f). He does not bring heartfelt affliction upon mankind (Lam. 3:33). Wrath and vengeance are variables, while love is a constant in God's relationship with mankind. God's patience and long-suffering with the godless is sometimes so great that the prophet (Jer. 15) and the psalmist (Ps. 58, 79) are nearly brought to despair. When will God finally intervene with vengeance? How long yet? The same tension lies behind Nahum 1:3. Only when Israel is near its end, does God come in vengeance (Deut. 32:20, 29, 36). God's heart is not in the vengeance, but he does so when there is no other option (Jer. 5, 9). [OT:VG:294f]




8. And now it is even clearer that this NQM-vengeance is not at all opposed to 'love' [OT:VG:293]:


 "In contrast to modern language usage, vengeance and love in the Old Testament do not form a contradictory word pair. On the one side, as the research indicated, God's vengeance has nothing to do with a spontaneous, wrathful or hateful urge to destroy. On the other side, the love of God is not just good affections, but it can be expressed as wrath and jealousy; God's love is his dynamic, holy love. What place does vengeance have in God's relationship with people and the world, as motivated by the desire to bring salvation?


"The vengeance of God is representative of his sovereign rule over Israel and the nations. A good king, who is also judge and military leader, makes himself known to his people, on the one hand, in love and faithfulness, help and assistance (Prov. 20:28, 31:5ff.) and, on the other hand, by strong judgment upon evil-doers (Prov. 20:26,25:5; Ps. 101). It would show little love for his people if the ruler were to ignore the lot of his subjects and allow the enemy to wildly have his way. So too, the heavenly Ruler, the God of the covenant, has revealed himself as a God of compassion, grace, faithfulness and forgiveness and as a God who does not treat the guilty as if innocent, and punishes injustice (Ex. 34:6f., see the priority of 'love' in the series)."




9. One final point here I want to briefly mention is about the "honor" of Yahweh and various images of "profaning the covenant" etc. This can sometimes be portrayed as a 'priority' of an almost legalistic, megalomaniacal, insecure (even petty) deity. Apart from the quite legitimate demand to be treated as a Person, and even as the Source of Life (!), God also has indicated what HE considers to be 'profaning the Covenant' and 'being His enemy'. What is amazing is that this involves His fundamental solidarity with us.


Consider the following:


41 If I sharpen My flashing sword, And My hand takes hold on justice,

I will render vengeance on My adversaries, And I will repay those who hate Me.

 42 ‘I will make My arrows drunk with blood, And My sword shall devour flesh,

With the blood of the slain and the captives, From the long-haired leaders of the enemy.’

 43 “Rejoice, O nations, with His people; For He will avenge the blood of His servants,

And will render vengeance on His adversaries [Deut 32.41ff: notice that the oppressors are God's enemies, but it is the blood of His 'servants' that is avenged. To assault His beloved/household is to assault Him. To dishonor His beloved/household is to dishonor Him.]


"In their distresses, He was distressed" [Is 63.9]



How does "profaning" occur?


·         Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers? [Mal 2.10; the covenant is profaned by intra-Israelite treachery-no mention of Yahweh per se]


·         For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. 8 They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines. [Amos 2.6ff; note that "profaning God's name" is done by social exploitation and injustice]


·         Or lest I be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God. [Prov 30.9; stealing from another Israelite "profanes God's name"]


The larger list of passages from the prophetic corpus ( shows the various types of person-oriented evil that 'counts as' crimes against YAHWEH. Literally, crimes against a fellow Israelite was considered also a crime against God.


What I am trying to suggest here (without going into too much detail) is that Yahweh's intimate relation with Israel (and His "dependents") is the basis for much of the more 'religious sounding' causes of NQM. In solidarity with His people, arrogance against Israel is tantamount to arrogance against their King.



10. Similar to wrath, then, this vengeance--as the act of restoring justice and peace to the created order--is finite, historical, and catalytic.


In many of the biblical passages, NQM is connected to wrath, so this point should be fairly obvious. NQM is, however, even more tightly connected with salvation that even 'wrath', and so the final deliverance of God's dependents from all forms of oppression and treachery includes this NQM action. Once full liberation has occurred (and oppressors are banished or destroyed), there really is no more NQM. As a means to an end, it has fulfilled its purpose. And, as with wrath, vengeance only associated with the Eternal State as the catalytic action that separates His people from those who have (and would continue to) oppress them.




Okay, so where does this leave us on NQM/vengeance?


It is explicitly NOT vindictiveness or vengeance (modern). It is basically a judicial intervention (at the end of legal process) that rescues and recompenses the victim, and enforces upon the violator the just consequences of their atrocity (sometimes exacting resources with which to recompense the victim).


Again, this is quite different from modern notions of 'vengeance'...





We might also note three relationships that can be observed within these words:



First, there is somewhat of spectrum relationship of these, with the poles being attitude and action. We could perhaps diagram this (ASCII-wise) like this:




Jealousy               Wrath (moral outrage)                      Wrath (royal action)              NQM (legal action)



This would make Jealousy the attitude (which sometimes moved toward wrath, but sometimes toward compassion, as we noted). Wrath (moral outrage) would sometimes lead to Wrath (royal action) but sometimes would wait as long as possible before expressing itself. Wrath (royal action) was a royal response to some situation, a well thought-through response to some circumstance. Wrath MIGHT express itself in NQM--a legal action, not characterized by emotion/attitude in itself. [Peels notes in OT:VG:289: "The affective element that is included in the wrath of God is not present in the vengeance of God, which has a more juridical content. However, this does not detract from the fact that in many cases it is the wrath of God that accompanies the vengeance."]



Secondly, wrath seems more to be something God originates, whereas vengeance is often originated by appeals from His oppressed peoples.  In wrath, God often is responding as protective ruler to situations--without any mention of the appeals of his people for help. But with vengeance, the down-trodden, failing to find help and justice in this world, often appeal to God--their last hope--for intervention and deliverance. In both situations, motivated by the commitment to His people's well-being and peace, reality is restructured (quite forcefully) by the passionately loyal God, who defends His community (and welcomes anyone into that community for protection, liberation, and well-being).



Thirdly, the severity of the "restructuring" of each of these (to the extent they erupt into history, of course) is related to the "atrocity level" of the crime/oppression involved. The lex talionis principle is very much in play here, but we only notice the really violent ones (e.g., response to Assyrian cruelty) in scripture. But wrath and NQM could have much milder forms of restructuring (including internal, emotional) as well:


"In the lives of the righteous divine wrath takes the form of various problems such as sickness, persecution, the threat of early death, and a sense of remoteness from God (Pss. 88:16; 90:7ff.; 102:8, 10-11, 23). [TDNTlittle, s.v. "wrath"]




God's love is part of God's eternal character; wrath and vengeance are not--they are short-term responses to acts of treachery and malice. God is 'slow to anger' and seeks the best for His creatures. When forces arise which threaten to destroy the goodness of life and the pursuit of warm community, the Creator will begin to intervene. He may wait as long as He can--to give the treacherous time to re-think things--but He will eventually act decisively with them, in fulfillment of His commitment to grant peace and rest to us.


The negative notions of these words as used in modern parlance are not at all present in the biblical usage, as the above examination of the data should indicate.


Vengeance and Wrath are the words the bible uses for God's intervention of liberation,  recompensing the victims, and restructuring reality to ensure that "atrocity will be no more"...


They are acts born from a Heart that passionately loves people, that seeks our good, that weeps over oppression, that grieves over His own 'wrath', and that always seeks 'another way'...


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