What do I do with passages in the Bible like this?
The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.
Or this one?
Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, He who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? ‘It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.’ Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? ‘I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come. I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.’
Well, let me first give the answer I’d give my children: Believe them. God says here in the Isaiah one, for instance, that He has vengeance to be poured out on the nations. He is God, so I am to believe Him.
But I can lend a hand when it comes to passages that aren’t as plain Jane God-is-talking-and-telling-me-what-He’s-done-or-going-to-do by expanding on that a little. So, if the questions are like this:
“What do I generally do with passages and stories in the Bible that talk about God’s wrath? How do I worship from them? How do I apply them to my heart? How do I point my kids to Jesus with the Sodom and Gomorrah story when we come to it in family worship?”
Well, I’d start my answer with a question of my own to get to the heart of the matter:
“What is the Bible?”
The Bible is not a self-help book. The Bible is not a collection of advice. The Bible is not the best attempts of human beings to understand God. The Bible is the Word of the only living God, and that Word is also a story that is all about Jesus.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.
Jesus, in John 5:39
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But He answered, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
So the Bible is God’s Word, His communication to human beings, and it is also a story that is all about Jesus Christ.
Well, if that is what the Bible is, then when we get to parts that are about God’s vengeance and wrath, His good anger towards sin, God must be telling us humans something that is ultimately about Jesus.
Okay, fair enough, Wade. I’m with you so far. But what? What is He telling me about Jesus that I should be applying to my heart or teaching my kids or preaching from my pulpit in the stories and the passages like the ones below?
- The Flood in Genesis, when He destroys all the land animals and people who have the breath of life, all except those on the Ark, because of sin.
- The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, when He destroys two wicked cities because there aren’t any righteous people in them except for one little family.
- The judgment laid on Israel and Judah when they are conquered and stripped bare and many slaughtered for their idolatry an wickedness, though eventually a remnant get to return home in peace.
Well, there are certainly more than one thing, but I will offer what I think might be the most important one: God is showing us the unimaginably deep cup of ferocious good anger that Jesus took on Himself. God is showing us what Jesus bore in order to spare those who would believe in Him.
And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’ And there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gathsemane because He was about to be slain on a Roman Cross for all who would believe in Him. He was less than 24 hours away from being forsaken by God so that we wouldn’t have to be. He was about to have the sins of the world laid on His scarred and innocent back. I believe Jesus experienced more shame, more pain, more wrath than any human being ever has or ever will, and He was totally undeserving of it. God chose, before the foundation of the world, to put Himself forward and receive His own vengeance so that those who trust in Jesus could be spared. Like Noah and those on the Ark, we are rescued from the raging sea of God’s judgment. Like Lot and his daughters, we are plucked from the fire even though we are undeserving. Like Ezra and Nehemiah and Zerubbabel and Sheshbazzar, we who have believed get to go home to God’s country despite our past sins. And it is all because Jesus bore the flood of God’s wrath for our evils. He received the fire that Sodom did. He was exiled so that we could come home.
So what do I do with the stories and passages about God’s shocking vengeance?
I thank the living and loving God that Jesus bore that vengeance for me on the Cross. Jesus fulfilled God’s Law so that I can receive His Gospel. He took my sin’s penalty of death so that I can have His righteousness’ wage of life.
Jesus received the justice so that I can receive the mercy.
The cup my Jesus drank is one I am now spared. And someday we will both get to share a far different one at a very special banquet table, one that He has been preparing for some time.
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.