“In Wrath, Remember Mercy”

If you want to study the character of the children of Jacob, a good place to begin is in Genesis 49. That chapter begins, “And Jacob called unto his sons, and said, ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather together and hear, you sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father’ (Genesis 49:1, 2).”

Jacob then proceeds to relate the fate of all twelve of his children and of their descendants.

These depictions can be read simply as interesting stories, or they can serve as a basis for self-examination, using them as Paul suggested in I Corinthians 10:11: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”

Of particular note should be those character traits that are unchristlike in nature. If I am truly desirous of being among the 144,000, I need to be diligent to expunge these traits from myself and to “uproot every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted” (Matthew 15:13).

A quick scan of Genesis 49 reveals the following unchristlike character traits:

  • Instability
  • Incest
  • Cruelty
  • Murder
  • Anger
  • Wrath
  • Envy
  • Jealousy
  • Backbiting

A continuing study of these tribes through the Old Testament reveals even more barriers to salvation as the descendants of Jacob’s children multiply and spread.

It is not possible in this limited space to address each of these flaws. The one I would like to look at closely here is wrath—anger, and a hasty temper.

As I studied the character of Jacob’s children, I was particularly struck by what Jacob prophesied about Simeon and Levi: “Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel (Genesis 49:7)!”

My study revealed that in Scripture, there are three depictions of wrath: man’s, God’s, and Satan’s. Each has definite characteristics and definite outcomes.

Strong’s Concordance defines wrath as violent anger; vehement [passionate, heated, violent, intense] exasperation; indignation.

The first mention of wrath in Scripture occurs in the reference mentioned initially, when Jacob is prophesying about the future of his children:

Genesis 49:5–7: “Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place. Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honor be united to their assembly; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel! I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”

Throughout Scripture, examples of man’s wrath have similar outcomes as did that of Simeon and Levi—it is never good.

We are given much instruction and caution in the Scriptures, thankfully, about wrath and anger. Of particular note is James 1:19: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”

Inspiration alludes to that text in Testimonies, vol. 4, 243: “That which is done in haste and anger is not excusable. … You may, by a single word spoken in haste and passion, leave a sting in the hearts of friends which may never be forgotten.”

James expands on this theme in several places as his letter continues.

“Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.” James 3:5, 6.

The single Greek word that is translated into the English phrase “set on fire” means to inflame with passion. Clearly James understood that outbursts of wrath are provoked by Satan: “set on fire by hell.”

Solomon in his wisdom had earlier addressed this same issue several times in his proverbs.

“A quick-tempered man acts foolishly.” Proverbs 14:17.

“A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger allays [dispels, alleviates, relieves] contention.” Proverbs 15:18.

“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Proverbs 16:32.

It was also on his mind when he wrote out his repentance for his grievous sins: “Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools.” Ecclesiastes 7:9.

Paul also addresses this issue. Apparently anger, wrath, and a hasty temper were a significant problem in the early church.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul includes outbursts of wrath among the works of the flesh. (See Galatians 5:19–21.) He advised the Ephesians to “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.” Ephesians 4:31. To the Colossians, he wrote, “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.” Colossians 3:8.

Imagine what a peaceful world this would be if all the world’s professed Christians would follow Paul’s advice.

Inspiration addresses these issues very directly and very often.

“Meekness in the school of Christ is one of the marked fruits of the Spirit. It is a grace wrought by the Holy Spirit as a sanctifier, and enables its possessor at all times to control a rash and impetuous temper. When the grace of meekness is cherished by those who are naturally sour or hasty in disposition, they will put forth the most earnest efforts to subdue their unhappy temper. Every day they will gain self-control, until that which is unlovely and unlike Jesus is conquered. They become assimilated to the Divine Pattern, until they can obey the inspired injunction, ‘Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath’ (James 1:19).” The Sanctified Life, 15, 16.

It is interesting to note, by the way, that every one of the fruits of the spirit Paul gave to the Galatians—and subsequently to us—is the antithesis of anger.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:22, 23 KJV.

Obviously, one whose heart is filled with love, joy, and peace, one who is longsuffering, gentle, meek, and temperate, will not be guilty of outbursts of wrath or anger.

Interestingly, there is only one instance in the New Testament in which it is specifically stated that Christ was angry. It occurred after He had been accused of Sabbath-breaking when He was about to perform another miracle that would result in the same charge.

“And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Step forward.’ Then He said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.” Mark 3:1–5.

Of all the references to wrath and anger in Scripture, by far the most frequent are to God. The words wrath and anger occur over 400 times. Of those, the majority refer to God’s, which, it should be noted, is always manifested toward sin and sinners. A study of these occurrences will give the serious Bible student a comprehensive understanding of what God deems to be sinful actions and character traits.

Paul and Isaiah give us two general examples among the many hundreds that occur in Scripture:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Romans 1:18.

“Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it.” Isaiah 13:9.

One of the most surprising revelations that resulted from the study of wrath and anger is that only one reference to Satan occurs. It is in a text that is familiar to all Adventists: “Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.” Revelation 12:12.

Obviously, that time is far shorter now than it was when John was inspired to write these words. Inspiration addressed this issue as follows:

“I have been shown that Satan has not been stupid and careless these many years since his fall, but has been learning. He has grown more artful. His plans are laid deeper and are more covered with a religious garment to hide their deformity. The power of Satan now to tempt and deceive is ten-fold greater than it was in the days of the apostles. His power has increased, and it will increase, until it is taken away. His wrath and hate grow stronger as his time to work draws near its close.” Spiritual Gifts, vol. 2, 277.

Though we do indeed have an enemy, we also have a divine Redeemer, who has pledged to redeem those who turn their hearts to Him for salvation. The promises in Scripture that assure us of eternal life are too numerous to detail here. However, if we truly fear the Lord and hate evil, these promises are for us—His children by creation, by redemption, by adoption, by choice, and by faith.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.

Psalm 103:8-13

“In wrath remember mercy.”

Habakkuk 3:2

(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)

John Pearson is the office manager and a board member of Steps to Life. After retiring as chief financial officer for the Grand Canyon Association, Grand Canyon, Arizona, he moved to Wichita, Kansas, to join the Steps team. He may be contacted by email at: johnpearson@stepstolife.org.