Why does the God of the Old Testament seem so wrathful?

For many people it is difficult to achieve that perennial resolution of reading through this book called the Bible.  The reader starts at the beginning and gets through Genesis, perhaps into Exodus and part of Leviticus.  But wow!  And whoa!  Look what’s there!  Only eight survived while the flood surged and scourged all life from the face of the globe.  The first born of Egypt were executed, no matter if the family was royal and  rich or peasant and poor.  No blood on the doorpost meant no heir in the home.  With the exception of a prostitute and her family, Jericho was exterminated down to the last human and animal.  A man was stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath. Fire from the LORD consumed two sons of the High Priest who did not do worship as God had prescribed.

Reading through the Old Testament is not for the faint of heart.  The Lord God of the Scriptures says this about himself.  “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”  (Deuteronomy 4:24)  Who can warm up to such a God?  Who can love a God described by the psalmist with the words, “you hate all who do wrong”  (Ps. 5:5)?  Maybe I don’t want to wade through this whole book.

So sometimes people jump to the New Testament and start to read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  They seem so different.  Jesus hugged the children and blessed the babies.  Jesus filled stomachs with food and filled boats with fish.  Jesus raised a dead man to his feet.  Jesus ate with the outcasts, forgiving the scandalous of society.  Jesus rescued an adulteress from stoning and befriended a despised tax collector.  Everyone knows that Jesus proclaimed, “Love your enemies.”

If the God of the Bible is one Lord God, why does there seem to be such a difference in the way the two testaments depict him?    Remember that in Old Testament times God intervened on behalf of one nation, a nation graciously chosen to be used by the Lord as a vehicle of his word and promises.  That nation was Israel, a nation set apart and guarded by God so that the Lord could keep his promise of sending his anointed one, the Christ.  So God did act zealously to defeat Israel’s enemies, because those enemies endangered God’s plan of salvation. We do see specific commands from God to use the swords of his Old Testament people as swords of judgment against unbelievers who stood in the way of the Lord’s plan.   But, with the birth of the Savior Jesus and the completion of God’s salvation plan, God no longer needed the nation of Israel to play its special role.

More importantly, careful Bible readers will notice no difference in the character of the Lord God.  Both testaments describe God as a God who condemns and a God who forgives. Both testaments describe a God of wrath and a God of love. For example, the God of the Old Testament is the God who lovingly provided water and manna and quail to a nation that did not deserve it.  God’s grace was constant in the face of human unfaithfulness.  Conversely, the God of the New Testament is also the same Lord who said, “whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

All of Scripture proclaims this Lord God who is constant and does not change.  God revealed himself as a holy and just God who punishes all sin.  He also reveals himself as a loving God who sent a Substitute to take that punishment in our place.  In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 53, we read:   “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. … The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”   And in a New Testament book we read:   “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.   God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” ( 2 Corinthians 5:19,21)

The message throughout the Bible is a message of law and gospel.  The law shows us our sin.  The gospel is good news that shows us our Savior from sin, Jesus the Messiah.  So we rejoice in the unchanging message:  “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”  (Romans 6:23).