I have been reading some of the minor prophets recently, and it hit me quite how angry God is with his people, and with the nations surrounding them. Of Ninevah God says, 'Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts...' followed by some fairly graphic and disgusting things (Nahum 2.13, 3.5-7 etc). Micah begins with the promise of destruction for Israel's idolatrous behaviour. Obadiah condemns Edom, Jacob's brother Esau, for gloating over Israel's misfortune. And so on.
This made me think. Most obviously I suppose, it highlights just how angry God gets with sin. A stereotype of Protestant preaching is 'fire and brimstone from the pulpit', which reflects God's anger and just wrath, while perhaps being a bit over the top. It is an uncomfortable message, and not one people want to hear – it doesn't sit easily with the general understanding of God as a benevolent father with a big white beard. More serious are Richard Dawkins' attacks on 'the God of the Old Testament' for such unpleasant displays of vengeance and anger; unpleasant, that is, to our modern 'tolerant' sensibilities.
There are two dangers here. The first, corresponding to the uncomfortableness that people feel, is to deny God's wrath. This underestimates sin, and reduces God's holiness. Even claiming it is part of the Old Testament understanding of 'territorial gods' is false, because it is in the New Testament too. It is simply not the case that the God of the Old Testament is vengeful and the God of the New Testament is peaceful.
If we are seeking to be faithful to the Bible we cannot avoid the fact that sin makes God angry. Therefore, just as sin is not confined to the Old Testament, so God's anger isn't confined to the Old Testament. If you want proof, look in a concordance under 'wrath' and 'anger' – not to mention Jesus' display of anger in the temple (Matthew 21 etc). God's righteous anger is a central part of the message of the whole Bible, perhaps at its clearest in the prophets.
The second danger, corresponding to Dawkins' attack, is to stop here, and simply emphasise how angry God is with us 'miserable offenders', effectively denying the message of grace clearest in the New Testament (though present also in the Old). For the Bible tells us that yes, God justly punishes sin, and therefore we sinners deserve death, but that he also loves us and wants to have mercy on us. The interchange in Hosea is particularly astonishing, as we read of God's love and justice wrestling with each other.
It is for precisely this reason that the cross is absolutely central, for on the cross God's love and justice meet – they are both defined entirely and exclusively by the cross. It is on the cross, as Jesus bears the penalty for our sins, their consequence, that God fulfils his justice, whilst at the same time fulfilling his love, as he sets us free from that penalty through Jesus.
If we take the Bible as a whole, we see the Old Testament preparing us for and pointing us to the cross. It is on the cross that the tension between God's love for his people and his righteous judgement of their sins is resolved. The curses of the Old Testament, the condemnation that God speaks over the nations, over his own people, all of that wrath is poured out on Jesus, and we are saved by his blood.
And so we return to the minor prophets. As I was reading Nahum I realised that on the cross, God spoke those curses to his own Son, who willingly and obediently put himself under those curses. And he did that because he loves us so much, and because we have disobeyed him so much, and because he is so holy and just and righteous and faithful.
So on the cross, God's wrath was indeed satisfied – and, in the frequent alternative words to In Christ Alone, God's love was glorified also. However, we need to make sure we strike the balance between God's wrath and his love, so we don't cheapen his love, and so we don't turn God into Dawkins' stereotype. This balance is struck by Paul in some important verses in his letter to the Romans, on which note we will finish.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
Romans 5.6-9 (ESV)