Do the Testaments Portray God's Wrath Differently?
There are many who say, “The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.” I was reminded of this when I read the following:
And they carried the ark of God on a new cart, from the house of Abinadab, and Uzzah and Ahio were driving the cart. And David and all Israel were rejoicing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.
And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to take hold of the ark, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God.
1 Chronicles 13:7-10
King David and all Israel were rejoicing before God. They were carrying the ark of the covenant in a cart. The plan was to bring it to the city of David, in order that they might care for it rightly (13:3). During the trip they crossed over some rough terrain. The oxen lost their footing. The cart, with the ark in it, started to lean to one side. The ark was in danger of falling out and onto the ground, so Uzzah held up his hand and pushed against the ark to keep it upright.
You might think that all of this would have pleased God. After all, they were rejoicing before Him, and they were trying to take better care of the ark. Uzzah didn’t want the ark to touch the ground. His action seems well intentioned. Wouldn’t it have been far worse to let it fall? But God was not pleased. God became angry at Uzzah, and He struck him down.
Is this the same God that the New Testament talks about? The God that “gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”? Is this the same God that “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”? Yes. He is the same God – the same holy God.
God is holy. One characteristic of God’s holiness is that He is morally pure. “Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? … You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:12,13). Because God is holy, He hates sin. Because He hates sin, His anger burns against the sinner. The wrath of God is His anger towards unrighteousness. God’s wrath is His holiness stirred into action against sin (Romans 1:18).
The event that we read about in 1 Chronicles 13:9-10 occurred because God is holy. The ark of the covenant was the symbol and location of God’s presence on earth. The ark was so holy that few eyes could even look upon it and live, let alone touch it (Numbers 4:15,20). Israel mistreated the ark, and this was an insult to the holiness of God. God commanded that the ark be carried by the Levites on poles (Exodus 25:12-15). Instead, the Israelites were carrying it in a cart, in the same way that the pagan Philistines had done (1 Samuel 6).i When Uzzah touched the ark, God’s anger was kindled against him. Uzzah witnessed the wrath of God firsthand.
Many people look at God’s wrath as something negative. In reality it is holy and pure and perfect. Without it God would be unholy. The wrath of God and the holiness of God are unchangeable and inseparable. God has not changed. At first glance it might appear that God was more wrath-filled in the Old Testament, but the truth is that He held most of it back in those days. He was storing it up, saving it. The single greatest display of God’s wrath isn’t found in the Old Testament, it is found in the New:
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” … And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
Matthew 27:45-46, 50
Christ crucified is the greatest display of God’s wrath. It is infinitely greater in magnitude than all the Old Testament displays combined. Every one of our sins, individually, no matter how small we think they are, deserve the same wrath from God that Uzzah was dealt. Not only do they deserve the same wrath, but they require the same wrath, because God is holy. Not only do they require the same wrath, but they received the same wrath. God’s wrath for each and every sin, of everyone who ever has or ever will believe, was poured out at the cross.
God of wrath in the Old Testament, God of greater wrath in the New Testament. Don’t get me wrong, God is love, and God’s love was displayed on the cross, but we can’t recognize the fullness of that love if we don’t recognize the magnitude of God’s wrath that was poured out on Christ.
First John 4:10 reads, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Propitiation is “the sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor.” ii
God of wrath in the Old Testament, God of greater wrath in the New.