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Q24. How can God be slow to anger if His wrath is quickly kindled?

Q:

“Good morning, this message is for Ryan. Wondering if he can answer the following question I have about a questionable contradiction in the Bible. Ryan, I know there are no contradictions in the word of God, only our insight is limited. My problem is in regard to God’s anger: Psalm 2:12 states God’s wrath is quickly kindled but, when we compare this to Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18 it says God is “slow to anger.” I’m confused, is God’s wrath different than anger, or are they the same? If they are the same, I’m confused as to the apparent contradiction. Thank you for your blessed help.”

Éowyn

Hi Éowyn. Thanks for writing in. Not only do I appreciate the question but also the humble heart that came along with it. This is precisely the attitude we need to have when something in the Holy Bible doesn’t make sense to us. As you rightly said, the problem isn’t with God or His word but with us because we have limited insight and information. Furthermore, as human beings we are imperfect and fallen creatures who aren’t all-knowing like God is. That said, I want to take this opportunity not only to respond to your question and share my discoveries with you but also to show you the process I used. That way this article won’t merely answer the question but also provide a basic step-by-step method on how to study almost any passage in the Bible. Though this method is by no means comprehensive, the following Bible study tips should help to answer many different questions we face regarding the Word of God. So, pay attention to the numbered headlines as we go along.

Now then, regarding your question, this does, on the surface, seem to be a contradiction. God is said to be “longsuffering” and “slow to anger” in passages such as Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18 and yet His wrath is “quickly kindled” in Psalm 2:12. As the English Standard Version puts it, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.”

First, out of the deep love, respect, and appreciation I have for the ESV translators, I want to preface this by pointing out that the choice of words they used in Psalm 2:12 may not have been intended to be taken as a description of God’s patience (or a lack thereof). By saying God’s wrath is “quickly kindled” they could be referring to the suddenness of God’s anger after a long grace period. But, for the sake of the question (which is a very good one), let’s assume that “quickly kindled” does mean short tempered.

1. Consulting the Original Language

As you rightly suspected, and as Dr. Jason Lisle points out in his book Keeping Faith in an Age of Reason, “there are several different types of anger, wrath, indignation, and displeasure. These are often indicated by the specific Hebrew or Greek word used in the context, and can denote very significant distinctions.” In this specific example Psalm 2:12[1] uses the Hebrew word אַף (‘ap̄) which is here translated as “wrath” and depending on context can be defined as:

  1. Nostril, nose, face
  2. Anger[2]

On the other hand, Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18 both use the Hebrew word אָרֵךְ (‘ārēḵ), which is translated as “slow to anger” or “longsuffering” and can mean:

  1. Long (pinions)
  2. Patient, slow to anger[3]

Two other Hebrew words used to describe God’s anger in the OT are pānîm (Jeremiah 3:12) and zāʿam (Malachi 1:4). And in the NT, we find Greek words like prosochthizō (Hebrews 3:10) and orgē (Hebrews 3:11). Such variation in language illustrates why these words cannot all just be rolled together into one.[4] Obviously, there are several different words each with their own set of meanings. And correctly determining the meaning of any particular word is entirely dependent on the context of the passage. That said, I think we need to be careful about trying to differentiate between God’s “wrath” (Psalm 2:12) and “anger” (Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18) in this specific example because the Hebrew word used in Psalm 2:12 can also be translated as “anger”—and is rendered as such in translations such as the New Living Translation, Young’s Literal Translation, and the Complete Jewish Bible. However, I do think we need to turn our attention to another Hebrew word and how it is being translated because while all good translations of the Bible render the Hebrew word ‘ap̄ in Psalm 2:12 as God’s anger/wrath, they do not all agree on the translation and application of the word used to describe something about that anger/wrath. The Hebrew is מְעַט (mᵊʿaṭ) and it is translated in the ESV, NRSV, and NASB as “quickly”, as in God’s wrath is “quickly kindled.”

2. Consulting other Bible translations

But let’s look at how other versions of the Bible translate this same verse. Rather than God’s wrath being quickly kindled as in the ESV, the KJV and NKJV say that God’s wrath is “kindled but a little.” In the same way, the NIV (like the ESV) says that God’s wrath can “flare up in a moment.” But Young’s Literal Translation says that God’s wrath “burneth but a little.” Notice that while translators all agree that the Hebrew word mᵊʿaṭ denotes smallness or shortness, they do not all agree on what that word is describing. Is it describing the shortness of God’s patience (as the ESV and NIV seem to be doing) or is it describing the smallness of His anger (as in the KJV, NKJV, and YLT)? More on this in a moment. Suffice it to say for now, if it’s related to the amount of anger, then it has nothing to do with the length of time until that anger is unleashed. Therefore, there is no contradiction. God is “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18) and in Psalm 2:12 His anger “burneth but a little.”

3. Consulting Commentaries & Study Bibles

Interestingly though, there is a third way to interpret this verse. As Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown pointed out in their outstanding Bible commentary, the Hebrew could be translated as follows: Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled “in a little time” (מְעַט mᵊʿaṭ) Notice that this rendering says nothing of the nature of God’s wrath, only that it will happen in a short time. Possible support for this comes from the fact that the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) rendered this Hebrew word mᵊʿaṭ into the Greek as ἐν ταχύς (en tachys), which is the same root word the Apostle John uses in Revelation 1:1 to describe the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly (ἐν τάχει – en tachos) come to pass. As the Henry Morris Study Bible points out, this Greek word literally means “in speed” and one way to understand it here in Revelation is that “when [Jesus] does come, the events described in this book will all take place in a short period of time.” So, in the context of Psalm 2:12, it could be that God’s wrath has (or will) finally be unleashed suddenly and in a short period of time.

4. Context is Key

But which of the three interpretations is correct? Is God’s wrath “quickly kindled,” “kindled but a little,” or is it kindled “in a little time”? Context is the key. This verse can only be properly understood when taken with the rest of the Psalm and the Bible as a whole. One of the biggest errors I see skeptics make in their quest to prove the Bible wrong is their taking of a verse or passage out of context. They fail to consider the immediate context, as well as the overall “big picture” context of the Bible as a whole. Many times, I believe it’s because they’re simply not interested. They want to willfully reject and suppress God’s truth because they don’t want to change their sinful behaviour (See Romans 1:18-32). As one pastor put it, “Most people don’t reject the Bible because they think it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts the way they want to live.” However, for those of us who are interested in discovering the truth knowing that “every word of God is pure” (Proverbs 30:5) and is “given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), it is important that we determine what the larger context of Psalm 2 is and how it relates to the bigger picture.

5. Bombard the Text with Questions

To do this we need to read the entire passage and along the way ask ourselves some key questions including (but not necessarily limited to) what, who, why, and when? As you’ll see, answering these questions will prove important in solving our apparent contradiction. In applying this set of questions to Psalm 2 we first must ask what this Psalm is all about. Secondly, we need to determine to whom is it addressed. Third, why was this Psalm written? That is to say, what is its message and purpose? And fourth, when do the events in this Psalm take place in the overarching story of the Bible? Significantly, even before verse one, most (if not all) Bibles include a descriptive subtitle on this Psalm that begins to answer our “what” and “when” questions. For example, in my NKJV Bible the subtitle reads: “The Messiah’s Triumph and Kingdom.” My ESV Study Bible says something similar: “The Reign of the LORD’s Anointed.” So right away we have some answers. Psalm 2 is about the Messiah’s[5] triumph and eternal reign over the entire world which will ultimately happen when Jesus physically returns. And since this hasn’t happened yet, this puts the timing of these events in the future. Verses 1-2 also answer our question about who this Psalm is being addressed to: “Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed…” This Psalm is addressed to the whole world and specifically to the kings and rulers of those nations who would actively rebel against the LORD and His Christ. As to why this Psalm was written, it becomes ever clearer as we read it in its entirety that it is given as a warning to any nation or its leaders who would dare to come against God’s eternal King, Jesus Christ.

Now that we have answers to our key questions, let’s begin to unpack this. First, we now know that this Psalm is about Jesus Christ’s Messianic earthly reign which will occur at an undisclosed time in the future. Therefore, God’s anger and wrath spoken of in this Psalm has yet to be unleashed. So rather than God’s wrath being “quickly kindled”, He has been, and continues to be, extremely “slow to anger” and “longsuffering” regarding this judgment just as Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18 describe Him. Also, as we consider the big picture of the entire Bible, we note that this long grace period is consistent with how God dealt with rebellions in the past (think of the Global Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canaanites, and so on). Time and time again the Lord waited patiently for people to repent, but when they refused, He—as the Most Upright Lawgiver and Judge of all the earth (Isaiah 26:7, 33:22; Genesis 18:25; Psalm 75:7)—had no choice but to destroy them. Second, as we ascertained, a major reason Psalm 2 was written in the first place was to warn those who would oppose Christ. This is a great mercy in itself. God, like He has always done in times past, is issuing forewarning before He takes action. The third thing we discovered is that Psalm 2 is addressed to anyone who would actively oppose and defy God’s rule (i.e., nonbelievers). Contrast this with Exodus and Numbers which were written to those who actively submitted to God’s rule (i.e., believers). That’s not to say that God is only longsuffering towards the repentant. Clearly He is very patient with the lost “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9) and desiring to see them saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4). Nevertheless, the Bible does seem to teach that God’s anger toward the unrepentant is quite different from His anger toward believers.[6] For example, as Jason Lisle notes, for the redeemed, God’s anger is brief (Psalm 30:5; Jeremiah 3:12; Micah 7:18). But for the unrepentant, God’s anger lasts long (Numbers 32:13; Hebrews 3:10,11 3:11); even forever (Jeremiah 17:4; Malachi 1:4).[7]

Conclusion

Now that we have a better understanding of the content let us now return to our above query: Which translation of Psalm 2:12 is best considering what we know about the rest of the Psalm and the rest of Scripture? Is God’s wrath “quickly kindled,” “kindled but a little,” or is it kindled “in a little time”? Since God is universally portrayed in Scripture as longsuffering and slow to anger, including even Psalm 2, is it consistent to translate verse 12 as God’s wrath being “quickly kindled” (i.e., quick tempered) as the ESV does? Probably not. It would seem the Hebrew here would be better translated as God’s wrath is “kindled but a little” or else “kindled in a little time.” Since both of these translations say nothing regarding God’s patience there is no contradiction. God is indeed “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6 and Numbers 14:18) and His wrath “burns but a little” or perhaps “in a little time” (Psalm 2:12).

Afterword

As I mentioned at the beginning, in addition to answering your question I wanted to include a basic but helpful step-by-step process for studying the Bible that is sure to aid us in gaining a better understanding of any passage. First, we consulted the original languages. It should be obvious that the original language that any given book (including the Bible) was written in is its purest form. For the Bible that is Hebrew and Greek.[8] To access the original languages, you’ll need a Bible concordance as well as an interlinear Bible. If you don’t have a physical Bible concordance or interlinear Bible you can acquire print or digital copies online. Some websites such as www.blueletterbible.org include many such Bible study tools for free. Second, we consulted various other Bible translations. Though some Christians frown on this, checking other well-accepted versions of the Bible is extremely helpful, and I would even say critical, in gaining a fuller understanding of any given passage, especially if you do not understand the original Hebrew and Greek language. Third, we should consult various Bible commentaries and other study Bibles. Many of the challenges we face when reading the Bible have already been dealt with by Bible commentators and scholars throughout the years. Fourth, we made sure that we fully understood the context. Not just the context of the passages in question (Psalm 2, Exodus 34, and Numbers 14) but also in relation to the entire Biblical narrative. To do this, we took a fifth step, which was bombarding the Biblical text with probing questions. The more questions we ask and the more answers we get the better.  And as I demonstrated, following these steps provided answers to our questions. But there are other steps that could have been taken had we needed to. For instance, we could have consulted Bible Dictionaries as well as check the cross references in the Bible that are linked to the passages in question. Gaining an understanding of the cultural context is also extremely beneficial. The Bible, after all, is primarily a Jewish document that (physically speaking) comes out of the ancient east. Even today, the eastern culture is very different from the west. So, anything we can do to reduce the cultural gap will help. But most importantly of all we should consult the Holy Spirit of God through prayer when we face challenges in His Word. In fact, this should always be our first step.

I hope this helps–––thanks again for writing in!

 

Ryan Hembree | December 20, 2021 – 3:00 PM EST


[1] Also in Psalms 30:5; Micah 7:18; Numbers 32:13; Jeremiah 17:4.
[2] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h639/kjv/wlc/0-1/
[3] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h750/kjv/wlc/0-1/
[4] Lisle
[5] I.e., “the LORD’s Anointed,” who is Christ Jesus.
[6] Lisle, Dr Jason. Keeping Faith in an Age of Reason: Refuting Alleged Bible Contradictions (p. 104). Master Books. Kindle Edition.
[7] Lisle, Dr Jason. Keeping Faith in an Age of Reason: Refuting Alleged Bible Contradictions (p. 104). Master Books. Kindle Edition.
[8] And bits of Aramaic.