And the Lord said to Moses, "Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy." (Bemidbar / Numbers 25:10-11; ESV)
Recently I was leading a group in worship to God and chose a song that I hadn't done in many years. The lyrics are based on this verse in the prophet Habakkuk:
Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, - in our time make them known; - in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)
Habakkuk lived in a difficult and confusing time in the history of Israel (of which there have been many!). This prayer expresses his cry that, in the midst of hardship, God would show mercy. Hardship isn't really the best word, however. Certainly Habakkuk didn't see the nation's troubles as simply the mechanical consequences of bad behavior, but rather the word he uses is "wrath."
The concept of wrath in the Bible conveys a highly destructive fiery emotion. How it works is vividly portrayed in this week's Torah portion. Twenty-four thousand people died due to a plague that occurred in response to Israel's gross immorality and spiritual unfaithfulness. It took a drastic and violent act on the part of a person by the name of Pinhas (English: Phinehas) to turn back God's wrath.
I cannot claim to understand how God's wrath works. It does seem that at times it is a part of God's general reaction to human rebellion against him and other times it is very specifically aimed at individuals and communities. But one of the instructive things from the situations of Pinhas and Habakkuk is that finding oneself suffering under the effects of God's wrath is not an automatic statement of judgment upon that individual. As God's wrath is expressed in our midst, people who are not direct objects of wrath may be equally affected.
Many are uncomfortable with the idea that God might act out with great destructive anger, let alone that the innocent may also be affected by it, but this is what we encounter in the Torah portion. This story reflects the overall reality of life as the Bible sees it: full of goodness, full of evil, yet held together by God's sustaining power and love. If it wasn't for God's love, the world would have been destroyed by his wrath a long time ago. Our unwillingness to accept that God could be both loving and wrathful is far more about our inability to accept life's reality, than an honest commitment to philosophical or theological integrity.
Neither Pinhas nor Habakkuk had a philosophical or theological problem with the concept of God's wrath, but neither were they resigned to it. God's wrath is rarely the final and permanent state of a situation. Both Pinhas and Habakkuk did something about it. For Pinhas it meant an act of righteous indignation; for Habakkuk it meant prayer for mercy. In both cases these men believed that greater than God's wrath was his love and mercy.
I wonder how many terrible situations we find ourselves in where God is calling us to look to him, so that his goodness would break through. Believers in the God of the Bible are not to be fatalists. Just because things are the way they are do not mean they have to stay that way. Once we understand that we are not victims of impersonal forces, but people in the midst of a struggle of cosmic proportions, one in which God is in charge from beginning to end, we no longer have to blindly accept our circumstances. Instead we can be instrumental in rescuing people from God's wrath.