‘A Consuming Fire’: Holiness, Wrath, and Justice

“How often do we pastors give God equally profane worship when we dare to come into His presence without considering Him as holy, without seeing our primary responsibility in our celebration of worship as displaying the glory of God, revealing His majesty before the whole congregation? We need to think on this.”

(R.C. Sproul)  WE LIVE IN A CULTURE WHERE THE VAST MAJORITY of the people occasionally gives lip service to the existence of God but almost never regards Him as holy. If some do acknowledge that He is holy, very few add to that holiness any idea of divine justice. And if we are able to find a handful of people who agree that God is both holy and just, it is next to impossible to find someone who will add to these elements the idea that God is wrathful.

The assumption in the world—and even in most of the church today—is that the love, mercy, and grace of God either swallow up the holiness, justice, and wrath of God or effectively trump them. It is common to hear the hymn “Amazing Grace” played or sung. But hardly anyone believes that grace is amazing. It is something we assume.

In this chapter, I want to examine a pair of biblical texts that I have preached on many times. However, I do not apologize for having made the point I wish to make before, for these are things we need to examine over and over again. The Bible says that “the LORD your God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24), and we dare not forget it.

First, look with me at 1 Chronicles 13:

Then David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader. And David said to all the assembly of Israel, “If it seems good to you, and if it is of the LORD our God, let us send out to our brethren everywhere who are left in all the land of Israel, and with them to the priests and Levites who are in their cities and their common-lands, that they may gather together to us; and let us bring the ark of our God back to us, for we have not inquired at it since the days of Saul.” Then all the assembly said that they would do so, for the thing was right in the eyes of all the people. So David gathered all Israel together, from Shihor in Egypt to as far as the entrance of Hamath, to bring the ark of God from Kirjath Jearim. And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, to Kirjath Jearim, which belonged to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD, who dwells between the cherubim, where His name is proclaimed. So they carried the ark of God on a new cart from the house of Abinadab, and Uzza and Ahio drove the cart. Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets. And when they came to Chidon’s threshing floor, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzza, and He struck him because he put his hand to the ark; and he died there before God. And David became angry because of the LORD’S outbreak against Uzza; therefore that place is called Perez Uzza to this day. David was afraid of God that day, saying, “How can I bring the ark of God to me?” (vv. 1–12)

In seminary, I was taught that the biblical passages referring to sudden paroxysms of divine rage, such as the record in this passage of the killing of Uzza with no warning, manifested the truth that the Old Testament is not the inspired Word of God, but is an account of the popular religion of a semi-nomadic group of people who were pre-scientific and unsophisticated. I was taught that these episodes are totally incompatible with the New Testament portrait of the God of love revealed in Jesus. What I experienced in seminary was a revival of the Marcionite heresy, an attempt to purge from the Bible all references to the angry deity of the Old Testament.

In contrast to what I was taught, I believed that since this episode and others like it were recorded in the pages of sacred Scripture, they at least deserved to be considered with the philosophy of the second glance. I still believe that. So let us take another look at this confusing and horrifying event in the history of God’s people.  View article →