At the blast of your nostrils the water piled up; the floods stood up in a heap” (Ex. 15:8)
What happens when we get angry? Our heart starts racing, our breathing speeds up, and sometimes, even our nostrils flare. It’s as if we boil over and steam comes out of our nose. In the Bible, the most common Hebrew word for “anger” or “wrath” is the same word used for “nose.” When God is described as being “slow to anger” the Hebrew phrase is literally “long-nosed.”
A Long Nose
The long nose of the Lord is not something we usually think about, but it’s emphasized throughout the Bible. How exactly does a long nose relate to patience? I haven’t been able to find a conclusive answer to that question, but you can use your imagination. Perhaps, the longer the nose, the longer it would take for irritants to bother it or the longer it would take for the fumes to be released. In any case, this facial feature takes us down the paths of divine anger and divine patience.
What does God get angry at? What causes his nostrils to flare? First of all, we should ask, does God even get angry? Some think of anger as an imperfection which would make a perfect God incapable of expressing.
A Reason to Rejoice
The God of the Bible does get angry and both Moses and David rejoiced that his nostrils were in good working condition. After Israel was saved from the Egyptians, Moses and Israel sang a song to the Lord which contains this line: “In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the water piled up; the floods stood up in a heap” (Ex. 15:7–8). In that song, Moses attributed the parting of the Red Sea to the blast of God’s nostrils. Likewise, in David’s victory song, he narrates his cry for help and God’s response: “Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth” (Ps. 18:8). Moses and David were more than happy to believe in divine anger because that’s what saved them from their enemies.
The Irritant of Idolatry
Thoughout the Old Testament, the most common irritant in the Lord’s nostrils is Israel’s idolatry. Not long after Israel was rescued from slavery, they turned away from their Savior. Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and when he came down he found Israel worshiping a golden calf. The Lord was furious and told Moses “let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Ex. 32:10). But Moses stood up for Israel and begged for mercy and God granted it. Spiritual unfaithfulness, however, persisted throughout Israel’s history.
The book of Judges is a like getting on a hamster wheel that turns but goes nowhere. The characters change but the story stays the same: the people of Israel turn aside to serve other gods, the Lord gets angry and gives them over to their enemies, Israel cries out for help, and God rescues them by raising up a judge such as Gideon or Samson. Then the cycle starts all over.
Israel’s downward trend of unfaithfulness doesn’t stop with the book of Judges. As we read through the Hebrew Bible, we are continually confronted with Israel’s idolatry and God’s judgment. But why did Israel’s unfaithfulness bother the Lord so much? Before the northern kingdom fell in 722 b.c., the prophet Hosea said this about Israel, “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore” (Hos. 4:12). Those are strong words and they show that God viewed his relationship to Israel as a marriage. God was Israel’s husband and when she went astray his heart was broken, “how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols” (Ezek. 6:9). God was completely committed to his covenant with Israel. Israel was his wife.
But isn’t God overreacting? Why is he so needy? Consider things from God’s perspective. In a time when people believed in many gods—gods with specialties and geographic boundaries—the true God wanted to impress on the world that he was the only God. He set his plan in motion by choosing a man named Abraham and promising to bless him with land and descendants. Abraham’s descendants were intended to be a blessing to the world by conveying the knowledge of the true God. Although Abraham’s descendants fell into slavery in Egypt, God made a name for himself by coming to their rescue (Neh. 9:10). The rest of the world would hear about the power of Israel’s God—the power which enabled him to reach into the territory of other gods, defeat those gods, and deliver his people from slavery. But in order for God’s plan to work, the Israelites had to be faithful to the God who rescued them. What would be the point of a divine rescue, if Israel gave the credit to false gods? For that reason, God impressed this very concern on the minds of his people in the first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).
Unfortunately, that command didn’t stop Israel from going astray. Israel repeatedly and blatantly broke God’s command. How should the true God respond to this type of rebellion? Should he not mind when the people he rescued worship idols? If there’s only one true God, all other gods are false and the true God knows it. When the God who made us and loves us, sees us running after false gods—gods who don’t love us and gods who can’t help us because they don’t even exist—his nostrils flare.
Vexing Examples of Divine Anger
But not all expressions of divine anger are as easy to understand. Sometimes, it seems that God expresses his anger for no apparent reason and these stories can be troubling. In 2 Samuel 6, we find such a story centering around the ark of the covenant, the holiest object in the ancient Israelite religion. The ark was a wooden chest covered in gold about four feet long, two feet wide, and two feet high. On top of the lid called the mercy seat, Israel was commanded to place a pair of golden cherubim—guardian creatures with wings—facing each other. Inside the ark were the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (which is why the ark is called the ark of the testimony or the ark of the covenant).
To give you an idea of the sacredness of the ark of the covenant consider the tabernacle where it was kept. God commanded Moses to construct a tabernacle where he would be worshiped. The tabernacle was an ornate tent containing special furniture. The book of Exodus even gives the details for how to construct the tabernacle and its furniture (Ex. 25–30).
The tabernacle—and its replacement the temple—had two main rooms. The first room, called the holy place, and a second smaller room, known as the most holy place. If we entered the holy place and looked straight ahead we would see a thick colorful curtain embroidered with cherubim which looked as if they were blocking the entrance into the most holy place. The most holy place was off-limits to everyone except the high priest and he was only allowed in once a year. Inside the most holy place was the most holy object, the ark of the covenant. The ark was a most holy object because God was enthroned above the golden cherubim that were stationed on the lid of the ark (2 Sam. 6:2). “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Ex. 25:22). While every other ancient religion depicted their god in physical form, Israel was expressly forbidden to do so (Ex. 20:4). The closest Israel got to a visible representation of their God was the ark because it was the throne and footstool of their invisible God (1 Chr. 28:2).
The Death of Uzzah
Now we come to the story in 2 Samuel 6. When David was installed as king of Israel, he decided it was time to retrieve the ark and give it a home in his capital city, Jerusalem. So they transported the ark by placing it “on a new cart” (2 Sam. 6:3) with the brothers Uzzah and Ahio driving the cart. As the ark was wheeled along, the people rejoiced, sang, and played music to the Lord. But when they got to the threshing floor of Nacon, “Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled” (v. 6). But Uzzah’s grasping of the ark was a deadly mistake because the Lord’s anger broke out against him and he died beside the ark. The party was over.
More Information Needed
Have you ever rushed to judgment on an issue only to realize later that you were badly mistaken? Your initial judgment was made without considering vital information. Likewise, without more information, this account of God’s anger is disturbing. After all, wasn’t Uzzah only trying to be helpful? Why did God get so angry? Even David responded with anger and fear.
The information we need can be found in the books of Exodus and Numbers. In those books we learn that the people of Israel were given specific instructions on how to transport the ark. First, the ark was supposed to be carried, not placed on a cart. It’s hard to imagine a king riding on an ox-cart but we’ve probably seen kings being transported on the shoulders of servants. Why would God deserve any less? The ark was constructed with rings on the sides for carrying poles and “the poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it” (Ex. 25:15). Second, before the ark was transported, it was to be covered by the Levites, the priestly tribe of Israel (Num. 4:5). Third, within the tribe of Levi there was a specific group of men called the sons of Kohath who were responsible for carrying the sacred objects, but they were forbidden to touch the holy things directly “lest they die” (4:15). We don’t know for certain whether Uzzah belonged to the “sons of Kohath” but we know he crossed the “no trespassing” line. This information shows that there were prescribed ways to handle the ark because handling the ark was a matter of showing reverence to God—something Uzzah failed to do. While this additional information may not remove all of our concern, it at least helps us to make sense of what happened to Uzzah.
Consider the Elapsed Time
In addition, when we struggle with a troubling story of God’s anger we should consider the amount of time that has elapsed in the biblical narrative. Stories of divine judgment may seem to come at a rapid-fire pace, but there are often huge chunks of time that are passing without even a mention. For example, the book of Numbers spans a 40-year time period. And approximately four centuries separates the Old Testament from the New Testament. Flipping a page in our Bible may mean flipping through decades and centuries. A failure to consider the amount of elapsed time—granted, we can’t always be sure of the time in question—may lead us to disagree with one of the primary descriptions of God: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 145:8). God’s slowness to anger means anger is not his first reaction. He allows time to pass, time in which he’s patiently giving warning after warning.
Consider God’s Expressed Feelings
When judgment finally arrives, God doesn’t seem to enjoy administering it. It’s like a parent telling their child, “I don’t enjoy doing this, but I have to discipline you for what you’ve done.” After the devastations of Jerusalem, the author of Lamentations writes, “He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (3:33). And through Ezekiel, the Lord asks this question, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (18:23). In case the audience is unsure of the answer, it’s given a few verses later, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (v. 32).
While there are many stories of divine anger in the Bible, these stories shouldn’t overshadow God’s primary attitude toward humanity. John wrote, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) and love is the posture that explains the creation of the world, the heartache God felt before the flood, the saving of Noah, the blessing given to Abraham, the exodus, and the giving of the Ten Commandments. If God wasn’t love, he wouldn’t have bothered to create us and if for some reason he did, he certainly wouldn’t bother to encourage us or help us. God gets angry, but his anger is no comparison with his love. As David said, “His anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime” (Ps. 30:5).
Christians see the ultimate expression of divine love in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The reason Jesus came was because “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Jesus not only came into the world, but he offered up his life for the world, and in so doing became “a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Paul explains why this ransom or redemption was necessary in his letter to the Romans. After stringing together a litany of Old Testament quotations which show the guilt of the whole world—Jew and Gentile alike—he says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Since we’re all guilty, divine wrath is what we can expect. In Paul’s words, we are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). And for that reason we need a Savior because we’re like the children of Israel in the book of Judges who keep falling into the same sin only to face a certain judgment.
But God is “rich in mercy” and he has provided a way for us to escape the blast of his nostrils. Out of sheer grace, God saves us from the judgment we deserve (Eph. 2:4–8). In Paul’s greatest theological treatise, he explains how this salvation takes place : “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:24–25). Paul’s words are a mouthful and even Peter acknowledged that Paul wrote some things that are “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:15–16) so let’s define the terms Paul uses.
Justification and Redemption
Justification is a legal term denoting acquittal. When a defendant has been tried and acquitted, that defendant has been justified. Redemption is a commercial term involving rescue by payment. When a grocery store redeems a soda can, that store is rescuing the can from the garbage dump by making a payment. By using those words, Paul is saying that althouth we’re guilty, God’s in his grace acquits us and the way we reach this place of exoneration is by Jesus’ costly rescue operation.
Now Paul is ready to elaborate on the rescue operation: “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” To propitiate means to appease the wrath of someone. This is a crucial concept because it means that God’s wrath can be placated. But who should be the one to appease God’s wrath? We naturally think of the offender because the offender should make amends. But Paul says God is the one who ultimately appeases his own wrath. God took the initiative by presenting his Son to take the judgment we deserved: “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.” Although we were certain to be struck down by flashes of divine wrath, God set up Jesus as our lightning rod to absorb the charge of God’s judgment. To be safe from the storm, we only need to receive Jesus and his accomplishment “by faith.”
Propitation Linked to the Mercy Seat
But there’s something remarkable in Paul’s use of the Greek word translated as “propitiation.” Most of the other uses of this Greek word refer to the mercy seat, the golden lid on the ark of the covenant. While scholars debate whether Paul was actually alluding to the mercy seat in this passge, there can be no denying the linguistic link. The mercy seat or as some translate it the “atonement cover” was the most sacred part of the ark of the covenant because God promised to “appear in the cloud over the mercy seat” (Lev. 16:2). For this reason, the high priest had to pay special attention to the ark’s lid during his annual visit into the most holy place. On the day of national repentance called the Day of Atonement, the high priest was required to carry a censer full of hot coals into the most holy place “that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die” (v. 13). The covering of smoke was specifically intended for the mercy seat. Next, the high priest was commanded to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial bull on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat and then he had to do the same with the blood of a goat. The bull was the required sacrifice for the priest and his family, while the goat was the sacrifice for the people of Israel (vv. 11–15). The blood dripped down the cherubim and onto the base of the lid causing the beautiful golden lid to become a bloody mess. The golden lid was special because it was the meeting place between God and humans. And because of it’s special status, the high priest had to give it special attention by covering it with smoke and sprinkling it with blood.
If Paul is indeed referring to the mercy seat, he’s saying that Jesus is not only the bloody sacrifice that is applied to the mercy seat, he’s also the mercy seat itself. Jesus is the golden lid where we meet with God. The meeting, however, can’t take place without a sacrifice. We have offended God with our sins so we can’t simply barge straight into his presence and act as if we’re on good terms with him. Blood is required because as Paul said, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). But the good news is that God has not only provided the meeting place, he’s also provided the sacrifice which makes our meeting with him possible. God put forward Jesus as a propitiation or a mercy seat by his blood. As a result, those who are in Christ are no longer “destined for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).
The Temporary Role of Animal Sacrifices
If all of this talk about sacrifices bothers you, rest assured that for Christians, Jesus’ sacrifice put an end to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. While Israel’s religion included rituals of sacrifice, as did other ancient religions, the entire system was a shadow of the reality. And that reality is Christ. The letter to the Hebrews says that all of these things—priests, blood, tabernacle, and ceremonies—were pictures or symbols of heavenly things (8:5). They weren’t intended to have a permanent place in the lives of God’s people. Think of the entire Old Testament religious system as the warm-up program for the main event.
And the main event is Jesus and his sacrifice. Jesus is the bloody mercy seat where we meet with God, Jesus is the high priest who made the ultimate offering to God, and Jesus is the sacrifice because he “offered up himself” (Heb. 7:27). The Gospel of Matthew tells us that when Jesus died the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom (27:51) indicating that we now have direct access to God (Heb. 10:19–20). The old religious system has come to an end, now everything is centered on Jesus.
A Pleasing Aroma
Allow me to point out one more biblical usage of the divine nostrils. In addition to breathing out fumes of anger, God breathes in pleasing aromas. After the flood, Noah exited the ark and built an altar to the Lord. On the altar, Noah placed animals and birds and probably grains of some sort. And the Lord “smelled the pleasing aroma” and blessed Noah and his sons (Gen. 8:21–9:1). The torrent of God’s anger had passed; the moment of his pleasure had arrived.
The theme of pleasing sacrificial aromas continues in the book of Leviticus. The grain offering made of fine flour, oil, and frankincense is called “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (6:15). But later in the book, in the middle of a list of punishments for disobedience, the Lord says, “I will not smell your pleasing aromas” (26:31). Their rebellion would negate any attempt to please God.
And that brings us back to the death of Christ because while the possibility of pleasing God with our sacrifices exists, our sin constantly gets in the way. But Christ offered himself for us as our ultimate sacrifice. “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Christ’s act of sacrificial love brought pleasure to God’s nostrils and by joining with Christ, we too, become a pleasing aroma to God.
For an entire study on divine anatomy see my book Seeing the Invisible God: 52 Biblical Reflections on Divine Anatomy.