Isaiah must have been gazing with such joy into the glory of that far away day of promise, and then lowered his eyes to the reality of what was going down around him.
The near-term prophesy of God’s wrath still had to be addressed.
Because of the people’s refusal to repent, God’s hand was stretched out in judgment.
God’s Judgment on Arrogance
The people in Samaria refused to see the fall of the northern provinces, Zebulun and Naphtali, to Assyria as God’s judgment of them.
The Lord sent a word against Jacob,Isaiah 9:8-11 (NRSV)
and it fell on Israel,
and all the people knew it—
Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—
but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:
“The bricks have fallen,
but we will build with dressed stones;
the sycamores have been cut down,
but we will put cedars in their place.”
This is exactly what God said would happen way back when Moses was giving his final instructions to the Hebrew people before they went into Canaan. Moses explained in great detail all the blessings that would come from obedience and all the consequences that would come from disobedience to God’s word.
God’s Promised Chastisement
In fact, detail for detail, if you compare Isaiah’s description of the people laboring under the discipline of God,
They will pass through the land,
Isaiah 8:21-22 (NRSV)
- greatly distressed
- and hungry;
- when they are hungry, they will be enraged
- and will curse their king and their gods.
- They will turn their faces upward, or they will look to the earth, but they will see only distress
- and darkness,
- the gloom of anguish,
- and they will be thrust into thick darkness.
… with the consequences Moses outlined,
“But if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees that I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you:
“The Lord will send upon you
- and frustration in everything you attempt to do,
- until you are destroyed
- and perish quickly,
on account of the evil of your deeds with which you have forsaken me.
“… The Lord will cause you to be
- defeated before your enemies;
- you shall go out against them one way and flee before them seven ways.
- You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
“… The Lord will afflict you …”Deuteronomy 28:15, 20, 25 (NRSV)
… you will see God kept to God’s word.
God was doing exactly as the Lord said God would, to turn the people back round to the Lord in repentance.
This was their wakeup call.
God’s Continued Chastening
Yet instead of recognizing God’s hand at work, instead of receiving God’s discipline, instead of repenting of their own wrongdoing and returning to the Lord their God, they scoffed and said, “We will build better, it is no big deal, in fact it is a favor to us, because we can use better supplies this time.”
Therefore the Lord would continue in God’s reproof.
So the Lord raised adversaries against themIsaiah 9:11-12 (NRSV, brackets are mine)
and stirred up their enemies,
the Arameans on the east and the Philistines on the west,
and they devoured Israel with open mouth.
For all this [God’s wrath] has not turned away;
[God’s] hand is stretched out still.
The Wrath of God
Most of us, when we think of wrath, think of rage in all its horrifying, ugly, frightening, and twisted human form, destructive, violent and anti everything that you and I might associate with loveliness and purity.
In fact, our associations with wrath, vindictive fury, and retribution are usually of evil people.
It goes against the grain to put God in the same category, Whom we know to be loving and compassionate. No human being you or I might know personally is both loving, forgiving, and compassionate and vindictively wrathful. It makes a person feel bad that an awesomely all-powerful being might also be permanently and resolutely angry with people—with us. Even worse when there seems to be nothing anybody can do about it.
God’s wrath, seen in that light, feels unfair and unkind. You and I might say we have tried our hardest to be good people. Does not even the thought count with God?
But this is not the nature of God’s wrath.
The Book of Isaiah often speaks about the idea of wrath, but instead of describing God as harsh and condemning, Isaiah talks about God’s love, grace, and generosity.
It appears to be an unbridgeable chasm, does it not? How can those two positions be reconciled? They seem as opposite as black and white, as day and night.
Yet, the evidence shows God’s love will never make peace with humankind’s current condition. The wrath of God springs from an infinite grief over broken people and the broken relationships between people and God, people and each other, and people with creation. God’s wrath flows from the beautiful and pure grief of a Being Who is breathtakingly holy and lovely. God Who loves and longs for intimacy with humankind, and for shalom among all creation, will have it.
So what is it, then? What is this Wrath of God, if it is not this twisted, vindictive rage that you and I see sometimes in people?
The Wrath of God is God’s just judgment, God’s active, resolute opposition against all sin and evil, everything that is wicked and wrong. It is the consuming fire of the presence of God’s holiness which burns up in a fiery instant all that is not holy, all that is unholy.
Nothing that is unholy can survive contact with the purity of God’s holiness.
Like matter and antimatter, only one can remain once both have come into contact with each other.
The Wrath of God is described as a furnace, a place where ore is separated into two parts—the precious metal, and the schist that surrounds it. The metal, through the action of great heat, is refined to its purest state. The schist, of course, is melted into great slags of waste.
Same furnace, two results.
The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,Psalm 12:6 (NRSV)
silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
purified seven times.
God’s promises are pure, just as all things that pass through a furnace are pure.
Your hand will find out all your enemies;Psalm 21:8-9 (NRSV)
your right hand will find out those who hate you.
You will make them like a fiery furnace
when you appear.
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
and fire will consume them.
Whatever cannot be purified will instead be consumed.
The Wrath of God is apparently even now at work, as God tests the hearts of each person. Apparently, according to the Apostle Paul, this testing is revealed in the darkening of people’s minds, and in the downward progression from darkness to depravity.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.Romans 1:18 (NRSV)
The Wrath of God is described as slowly building, like water behind a dam, which will one day burst open on the Day of Judgement, when every person will stand before God and all creation will be arrayed around the throne of the Lord. It will be a day of truth-telling, of revelation, when all will appear is it really is.
God continues to cleanse the hearts of those who come to the Lord in faith, seeking reconciliation.
And it is at least partly through the agency of the wrath of God that injustice will be replaced with justice, that what is wrong will be made right, what is broken remade, the dead reborn, creation renewed, and the cosmos restored to shalom.