A common notion about the so-called Old Testament God is that he is an angry God. It would be much more accurate to say that this God is a grieving God. The anger reflected in some passages is really about God’s rejection by his people. That God might be hurt by your rejection is a concept you might not get if you think that God is above suffering.
Fretheim , in The Suffering of God is quite forthright about this. He articulates three reasons for God’ s suffering. God suffers because of the people’s rejection. God suffers with his people when they suffer. God suffers for his people to redeem them. He has a chapter about each.
There are some powerful insights about how God suffers due to the defiance of his people. I particularly liked what Fretheim said about the flood story. God was sorry about creation because of the sin and corruption in the world (Genesis 6:5-6). But at the end of the story God binds himself to a promise to let creation continue despite people’s sin. God limits his own power so that he cannot utterly destroy.
Isaiah 54:9-10 purports to give us God’s perspective on this:
‘As far as I am concerned, this is like in Noah’s time,
when I vowed that the waters of Noah’s flood would never again cover the earth.
In the same way I have vowed that I will not be angry at you or shout at you.
Even if the mountains are removed
and the hills displaced,
my devotion will not be removed from you,
nor will my covenant of friendship be displaced,’
says the Lord, the one who has compassion on you (NET Bible).
The consequence of this for God is divine grief. Though we may see this as anger, the Godward side of judgment and wrath is grief. God chooses not to unleash rage against the world, so the heart of God continues to grieve.
I have pointed out several times on this blog that lament is a major category in the Psalms and elsewhere. Israelites dealt with tragedy and pain by lamenting it before God. But Fretheim points out that the Hebrew Bible contains a number of divine laments. Here it is not the people lamenting what has happened to them but God lamenting the turning away of his people.
An example is Isaiah 65:1-2. In this passage God seeks his people, but they reject him. He stretches out his hands to them, but they are rebellious. God even says, “Here I am! Here I am!”, but the people pay no attention to him.
There is also that poignant passage in Hosea 11. Hosea has pictured God as a jilted husband and as a parent whose love has been spurned. In vs. 8-9, God asks how he can give up his people. He says he cannot carry out his fierce anger because he loves them too much.
In laments, God often asks open-ended questions that express divine anguish. “How can I give you up?”, (Hosea 8:11). “How can I pardon you” (Jeremiah 5:7). “I will purify them with fire. What else can I do?” (Jeremiah 9:11).
Once again, Fretheim questions the common practice of taking these scriptures as merely a way of speaking. The God of Israel seems to really struggle within himself and to really feel distress. These scriptures, he claims, give us a glimpse into the heart of God.