The indignant God

Christians rightly celebrate the mercy and grace of God. We affirm his goodness and his power. We preach a gospel of love, the kind of sacrificial love demonstrated on the cross. We invite people to believe in a God who loves them more than they can possibly imagine. All of this is right and good.

The part we don’t like to talk about, however, is God’s anger at sin.

This is, I think, part of the reason why it’s hard to read imprecatory psalms, psalms that seem to vent anger and hatred at the psalmist’s enemies. The psalmist takes for granted that the righteous God abhors sin and evil, and that those who choose the way of wickedness will eventually meet a sorry end (e.g., Ps 1:6). Using the kind of military metaphors that the people of his day would understand, the psalmist describes the sure and violent vengeance of God against wickedness:

If one does not repent, God will whet his sword;
    he has bent and strung his bow;
he has prepared his deadly weapons,
    making his arrows fiery shafts.
(Ps 7:12-13, NRSV)

Oh, and have a nice day. Will we see you next Sunday?

. . .

Throughout the Psalter, we see the basic, black-and-white vision of Psalm 1 play out again and again. On the one hand is the path of righteousness, wisdom, and blessing; on the other, wickedness, folly, and destruction. That’s not to say that the Psalms contain no shades of grey. But to the psalmist, those who follow the way laid out by a righteous God must hate sin the way God does.

That’s why in Psalm 7, the poet can pray broadly for the end of all wickedness:

O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
    but establish the righteous,

you who test the minds and hearts,
    O righteous God.
God is my shield,
    who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
    and a God who has indignation every day.
(vss. 9-11)

This isn’t bad temper on the psalmist’s part. He’s praying that the righteous will of a righteous God be done. As we’ve seen, he’s already asked God to judge his innocence regarding the false accusations of his enemies. This is, after all, the God who tests minds and hearts. He can see whether the psalmist’s heart is indeed upright, and the psalmist is confident that this is what God will find. Thus, he knows God won’t punish him with the sword, but instead will protect him as a shield.

. . .

The NRSV translates the psalmist as saying that God “has indignation every day.” It’s not a word we use often in English, and when we do, it’s usually paired with the adjective “righteous.” In some ways, the adjective should be unnecessary. The root meaning of the word, after all, suggests a right response to a violation of dignity, to an act that is intrinsically unworthy.

But I confess that the word “indignation” falls flat for me. Without the qualifier “righteous,” I associate it (wrongly) with wounded pride. Even when I’ve heard it used with the qualifier, it was as if the speaker wanted to avoid saying that God was angry. When Jesus cleansed the Jerusalem temple, someone might say, he wasn’t angry so much as experiencing righteous indignation.

Well, yes. And no.

Yes, to the extent that we understand what indignation is supposed to be about. But no to the extent that we feel we have to tiptoe around the fact that Jesus was mad.

Really mad. He was deeply offended at how his Father’s house had been desecrated, and not shy of letting people know.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that believers should start looking for reasons to throw furniture. Nor am I suggesting that we make a habit out of cursing our enemies with destruction.

But I do wonder: if God were to test our minds and hearts, would he find that we’re as horrified or offended by sin as we should be?