How God Satisfies His Wrath: A Deeper Look at Propitiation, Part One

Thursday, May 26, 2005

I'm excited about the next three posts because they deal with a much neglected topic. It is much neglected because most Christians don't know what the word means, nor the biblical truth behind it. For these Christians, the next three posts will be considered basic biblical education. However, for those Christians who do understand the word, the next three posts will be for them a deeper look at the innerworkings of propitiation as revealed in the Hebrew understanding of it. Please feel free to leave comments and interact on this matter.

Propitiation. Most Christians neither know the word itself nor its meaning. Yet if there was any word other than 'justification,' that could stand as its equal, one which encapsulates the heart of the gospel message, it would be this word - propitiation. My definition of propitiation is as follows: the completion of the process of God pouring out His cup of wrath until it was empty, and of Jesus absorbing all God’s wrath until God was satisfied. Jerry Bridges, in his book The Gospel for Real Life wrote the following: “Jesus bore the full, unmitigated brunt of it. God’s wrath against sin was unleashed in all its fury on His beloved Son. He held nothing back” (p. 56). Sitting back and considering that point a bit more, I thought it helpful to post a bit more 'fat' off the back of that big word to chew on for a while. (If you don't understand this 'southernism', email me).

My thoughts center on the truth that when we make careful note of the chief Hebraistic understanding at God’s anger, wrath, and judgment, it suggests that when He desires to pour them out, it is because He desires to console or comfort His grief and anger. The direction I’m headed should be apparently clear. Ultimately God comforts Himself by pouring out that judgment on Jesus Christ for us. But it is precisely this point of God and Him comforting Himself that needs more attention.

This is a rather difficult field of thought. It is hard to describe God. He is not a man, so any human words we use to describe Him are feeble at best and really broken from the start. But man is created in His image. And this necessarily means that something of man is a reflection of God. Now, this is an excellent time to learn a good lesson in theology when it comes to speaking of God. When we do speak of Him, we obviously must do so with human terms, but the lesson is that we must do so only with the human terms in which the Bible speaks of Him. There are many reasons for this, not the least are which respect for Scriptures and wariness of depravity. But that’s not the point I’m after here.

As one thinks of our great, unchangeable, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent God, the thought of Him grieving or being sorry for something doesn’t immediately enter our minds. But the Bible does contain texts like these. Genesis 6 contains the first reference. In verses five through seven Moses, the author of Genesis, unfolds a very interesting and intriguing insight into the mind and heart of God. It is a thought which starts with sin, moves to sorrow, advances to judgment, but consummates in salvation. Listen as I quote from the Good News Bible:

“When the LORD saw how wicked everyone on earth was and how evil their
thoughts were all the time, He was sorry that He had ever made them and put them
on the earth. He was so filled with regret that He said, ‘I will wipe out these
people I have created, and also the animals and the birds, because I am sorry
that I made any of them.’ But the LORD was pleased with Noah.”

In verse 5, the Lord saw the depravity of man on the earth. In verse 6, this depravity moved Him to sorrow and grief. In verse 7, this sorrow and grief expresses itself in total judgment. And in verse 8 (and verse 9), this judgment excludes Noah and his family. What an amazing thought process. Now where do I come up with this idea of God comforting and consoling Himself?

This thought is found in the Hebrew words for “sorry” and “regret” in our version above. Other translates include the words “repented” and “grieved.” The word repent, is where we get our age old theological question: "what is meant by God repenting."

But the English language has better words to use in helping us with this Hebrew word, and the word “sorry” fits the bill a bit better. However, even then, we cannot escape some human connection with this concept of God being sorry. First, let me tell you what it is not, and then I’ll tell you what it is.

God being sorry is NOT: God looking down on the earth, seeing the sin of mankind, and then saying “Oops! Look what happened. Oh my, I’ll have to erase it all and do it over again.” God forbid! That actually hurts my mind to write such a thing!

Here’s what God being sorry DOES mean. The Hebrew word for “sorry” in Genesis 6:6 is naham (pronounced, nah-kam). It means 'to be sorry, to console oneself' (BDB). Thirty-eight times in the KJV, the word is translated as “repent” and it refers to God’s attitude toward sin or something else.

The other Hebrew word of importance in this verse is the word asab (pronounced, aht-sav). Inherent in this word is the concept of sorrow, labor, travail, hurt, pain, toil (cf. BDB, TWOT). It seems closely related to Hebrew word shuv (pronounced, shoov - the word used most often for 'repent' in the OT), which points to the physical effects of deep breathing (probably heavy and constant sighing) because of an emotional grievance or sorrowful occurrence.
Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can immediately identify with this definition. But does God experience this? Evidently, in some way it can be said that God was in fact deeply moved by the sinfulness He saw in Genesis 6:5-6. In some divine way, He was pained, sorrowful, hurting over the sin of mankind. Could we venture to say that His holy nature was somehow in divine travail and pain?

Now the form in which Hebrew word naham is used reveals something more (it is used in what we call the niphal form). About 119 times in the Hebrew OT, the particular form of this word communicates comfort and/or revenge. This form is used thirty times of God and seven times of man. A couple of examples would help.
  • In Genesis 27:42, we find another usage of the same word in the same form in the same book. That makes it a very helpful usage. In that verse we find Esau sorrowful that he had been tricked out of his family blessing by his little brother. So what did that sorrow cause Him to do? He comforted himself by making plans to kill his brother. In this sense he also took revenge then, right?
  • Also, in 2 Samuel 12:24, Bathsheba is sorrowful over the loss of the son she had bore with David in his sin. So David comforted Bathsheba by conceiving another child with her. In both references, then, the sorrow produced an action which was taken to console and comfort.
Now, if the object in a passage ends up being the regret or sorrow of God, the meaning seems to shift from regret and comfort more towards revenge and intolerability.

In this way God’s “sorrow” over sin is not like ours. He feels something far greater than we do, and that feeling causes Him to pour out His wrath in judgment and destruction. In His sorrow over sin, He consoled and comforted Himself by punishing. In human terms, His deep sighs of sorrow could only turn to sighs of relief after He had utterly wiped out life on planet earth.

Can you guess where all this is going? What other event in Scripture parallels the disaster of the flood and the rescue of the ark? Tomorrow we'll add further exegetical weight to this concept of God's anger and sorrow and show you where it finds its consummation.

Read Part Two.

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