An angry and vengeful God?

In Exodus 32 we see a terrible picture of Israel’s idolatry and willful rejection of God. Mere days after God rescues them from Egypt – miracles and all – they turn away and worship a statue of a golden calf. Here is how God responds:

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

Moses intercedes for Israel and God relents from destroying them completely. However, judgement falls on those who continue in their rebellion.

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. 27 Then Moses said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.

God’s anger in these verses is certainly hard to digest. There’s no doubt that Israel’s rejection of God is serious. However, God appears vengeful in a way that may not sit comfortably with us today. How should we understand Exodus 32?

These verses need to be read carefully. On the one hand, we should take seriously God’s anger at the sinfulness of Israel, especially considering that they should have known him: his redemptive purposes, his mighty power and his gracious salvation. Besides, he has only just saved them from Egypt, and right before their eyes! Furthermore, Israel has already had a chance post-Golden-calf to turn back to God (v. 26), yet many refused. This is sobering for us to take our own sinful idolatry seriously, especially if we tend towards playing it down or hardening our heart.

On the other hand, we need to read God’s apparent vengefulness in v. 27-28 in light of who God really is. And we see this in God’s self-revelation of his character in Exodus 34:6.

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…”

Despite the claims of famous atheists like Richard Dawkins, God is not at heart a vengeful, capricious, petty God. In fact, he is a ‘compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’. That is who God is (‘God is love’ – 1 John 4:8). Indeed his righteous anger in Exodus 32 flows from his jealous love for them and his desire to bless them and the world through them (Exodus 19:6). The Bible even calls God’s judgement his ‘alien task’ (Isaiah 28:21)!

Further to God’s loving character is his awe-inspiring, fear-inducing holiness. Having come into contact with a holy God, Moses can’t help but hide his face (Exodus 3:6). At the foot of Mount Sinai, every Israelite trembled before their holy God (Exodus 19:16). God is love. But he is also utterly unique in his power, goodness and purity. It should not be surprising to us, then, that Israel’s casual disregard of a holy God enflames His righteous anger.

Finally, and most importantly, as readers of the Bible post-Christ, all of this can only be properly understood in light of the cross of Christ. The God who was so angry at Israel in Exodus 32 is the same God who – in Jesus – dealt with his own anger by personally taking on the judgement we deserve. He did this at the cross, suffering a brutal death for sinful, evil idolators like you and me! What an amazing God we worship!

At the Cross, Jesus takes the just judgement that you and I deserve for our idolatrous rejection of God. This is something of what Paul means when he says the following in Romans chapter 3:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Maybe you still have one burning question: ok, I’m a Christian, but what about the idols in my life today? I trust in Jesus, and try to live for God, but I still tend towards worship of self, or of my career, or of my finances, or my sporting team, or (fill in your idol here). Is God going to react to me like he did to Israel?

The answer is a qualified noNo, if we are a Christian, we are not threatened with judgement and death at the hands of a justly angry God for our idolatry. Jesus took our judgement on the Cross so that we don’t have to. The qualification is that, as renewed God-worshippers, our worship matters. The idols in our life displease our God. He loves us, is jealous for our hearts, and he wants us to worship him alone because he deserves it (he is glorious) and it’s good for us (it’s what we were made for). We won’t ever do this perfectly (until heaven), but God works in us by His Spirit, bringing our minds and hearts under his rule to worship him with our whole lives.


Paul Avis (Associate Pastor)

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