Promise: God is Slow to Anger

Oh, the goodness of God’s anger! That God, in his divine simplicity, has anger and is immutably angry, presupposes that God has goodness and is good. Christopher Ash and Steve Midgley state the doctrine well, “If God were not angry with evil, God could not be good. If God did not hate evil, he could not be love. If God did not burn with fury against evil, he could not be holy.”[1] Lose divine anger, we lose God’s goodness and God’s goodness expresses itself against evil in divinely wrathful anger.[2] It is no mere coincidence that the only time the word “hallelujah” shows up in the pages of the New Testament are in Revelation 19 where the martyred saints in heaven sing praises to God for the wrath and judgment Jesus brings upon the violent and persecuting unbelievers of this world. “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (Rev. 19:1-2). The biblical witness is clear: believers must not only acknowledge but will indeed, in glory, rejoice in the anger of God.[3]

            And yet still, God seems to speak of his own anger and wrath as his “strange work.” Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, and in the context of God pouring out his wrath, we hear God say “For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work” (Isa. 28:21)! Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock comments: “He moves with a slow pace in those acts, brings out his judgments with relentings of heart, and seems to cast out his thunderbolts with a trembling hand. ‘He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men’ (Lam. 3:33). And therefore he ‘delights not in the death of a sinner’ (Ezek. 33:11).”[4]

            Consider how unlike fallen men, our good God is. He is perfectly powerful and as such He exerts perfect power over Himself. His discipline and self-control is that divine perfection whereby he exerts more power to restrain His own hatred of sinners (Psalm 5:5; 11:5) than it would take to create a thousand different universes within a week. Ever since Genesis 3 we see God, who promised immediate death upon any sinful action, instead walk into the cool of the garden in a cool and collected fashion and simply ask, “Adam, where are you” (Gen. 3:9)? What control, what slowness to wrath!
            When Moses, upon the mountain, is tasked with bringing God’s good commandments down to his redeemed people, good laws to live by and to establish peace and justice with; we find out that down below at the base of the mountain, God’s redeemed people are instead bowing down to a golden calf! An idol created after the images and gods they remember from their captivity in Egypt! Was God angry? Oh yes, He was. “And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Exodus 32:9-10).
            And yet, in God’s providence, he provided godly Moses, in anticipation of Christ, to intercede on the people’s behalf. Did God know what Moses was going to pray before he prayed? Absolutely! “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him”
(Matt. 6:8). And so, in God’s good providence, Moses prayed. As a result, God’s anger was stayed. And even though Moses, in his uncontrolled anger, smashed the first two tablets of God’s law to the people, God in his self-controlled anger prepared another two tablets to be given. And as he did so, he revealed his own name in the process, revealing who it is that is ultimately behind this law. “The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation’” (Ex. 34:6-7).
            This is the same God who slowly walked into the Garden of Eden and calmly asked Adam, “where are you”, though He already knew. This is the same God who sent Jonah to the wicked Ninevites, patiently drawing them to repentance. This is the same God with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years one day and though He is not slow to fulfill his promises of judgment against sin is still nonetheless patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:8-9).
            Dear reader, know and marvel at the slowness of God in executing his anger against sinners, sinners like you and me. Bless the Lord, as the Psalmist of Psalm 103 reminds us, bless His holy name since He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities... As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:8-10, 13-14).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

               [1] Cristopher Ash, Steve Midgley, The Heart of Anger: How the Bible Transforms Anger in Our Understanding and Experience (Crossway, Wheaton, 2021), p. 82. Perhaps, you the reader, stumbled a bit over the idea of God’s immutable anger. Sure, God gets angry, but is He immutably angry? Is He not changed when I repent and turn to Christ, who has appeased his anger? Let the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock answer: “God is not changed when of loving to any creatures he becomes angry with them or of angry he becomes appeased. The change in these cases is in the creature; according to the alteration in the creature, it stands in a various relation to God: an innocent creature is the object of his kindness; an offending creature is the object of his anger... Is the sun changed when it hardens one thing and softens another, according to the disposition of the several subjects? Or when the sun makes a flower more fragrant and a dead carcass more noisome? There are divers effects, but the reason of that diversity is not in the sun but in the subject; the sun is the same and produces those different effects by the same quality of heat. So if an unholy soul approach to God, God looks angrily upon him. If a holy soul come before him, the same immutable perfection in God draws out his kindness toward him: as some think, the sun would rather refresh than scorch us, if our bodies were of the same nature and substance with that luminary.” Stephen Charnock, edited by Mark Jones, The Existence and Attributes of God: Updated and Unabridged, vol. 1 (Crossway, Wheaton, 2022), pp. 513-514

               [2] As Stephen Charnock comments: “All his attributes, which are parts of his goodness, engage him to punish sin. Without it, his authority would be vilified, his purity stained, his power derided, his truth disgraced, his justice scorned, his wisdom slighted; he would be thought to have played the hypocrite in his laws and would be judged, according to the rules of reason, to be void of true goodness.” Stephen Charnock, edited by Mark Jones, The Existence and Attributes of God: Updated and Unabridged, vol. 2 (Crossway, Wheaton, 2022), p. 1228

               [3] Per the view held by some (like John Stott) called “annihilationism” or “Conditional Immortality” we posit that there is just here a connection between the immutability of God’s anger and the everlasting nature of Hell. And yet still, from our perspective now as not-yet-glorified saints, there is a mystery in the experience of praising God in heaven where there is no more sorrow and the knowledge those same saints have of God’s anger over sin and sinners burning in Hell. It seems perverse to delight in the everlasting conscious suffering of those who go to Hell, indeed, God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. And it does not seem to stretch the principle of “good and necessary consequences” that we too ought not take any pleasure in the death of the wicked. And yet, Revelation 19:1-4 shows us that believers do delight in God bringing judgment upon the wicked. Hence, a mystery.

[4] Stephen Charnock, edited by Mark Jones, The Existence and Attributes of God: Updated and Unabridged, vol. 2 (Crossway, Wheaton, 2022), pp. 1228-1229



Stephen Unthank