On a few occasions in the Bible, God dispensed swift punishment on those who were guilty of sin, seemingly without offering any opportunity for forgiveness or forbearance (cf. Lev. 10.1-2; 2 Sam. 6.6-7; Acts 5.1-11).
On other occasions, however, God either withheld punishment for a later time, or he issued the sinner(s) a lighter sentence than the instantaneous death which others received (cf. Gen. 4.10-15; Ex. 1.8-2.23; 2 Sam. 11.1ff; Rev. 2.21).
These diverse responses to sin have given some the impression that God is capricious in his judgments, if not altogether unfair.
However, such an impression stems from a skewed perspective. Actually, there is a bigger picture that exonerates God of such charges.
The Cumulative Wrath of God
There is a principle that is repeated throughout Scripture, which God exercises in administering punishment on sinners.
Frequently, it is expressed in the form of a metaphor, whereby the sins of an individual, or a group of individuals, accumulates like waste inside a figurative “cup” (Rev. 17.4). While the vessel is filling up, God will withhold his wrath — perhaps the sinner will have his cup cleaned before it overflows.
Eventually, however, the cup fills to the brim, and there is no room left for leniency. Enough will be enough, and the wrath of God will at last be poured out against the sinner(s) in holy judgment.
Consider several instances in the Bible which convey this principle.
When God brought Abraham into the land of Canaan, he promised the patriarch that the territory would belong to him and his descendants (Gen. 13.15; 15.7).
At the time, however, Canaan was principally the possession of the Amorite peoples. And the territory would remain in their possession for several hundred years into the future.
In the meantime, God showed Abraham what would happen to his descendants before they inherited the land. During a deep sleep, Abraham experienced a nightmare conveying “horror and great darkness” (Gen. 15.12). This signified the fact that, before they inherited the promised land, Abraham’s descendants would endure a hellish future in bondage in Egypt. Why the tedious delay?
God told the patriarch:
“…in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen. 15.16).
The Amorites were guilty of “iniquity” (i.e., immoral behavior; sin). But God restrained their punishment for the next four generations, during which his wrath continued to accumulate.
Eventually, however, their turpitude reached a “complete” level, at which point they lost the privilege of inhabiting the land of Canaan. Consequently, their odious ways were “vomited out” of the territory in divine punishment (Lev. 18.24ff; 20.22; Deut. 18.9ff; cf. 1 Kings 21.26), and God’s people were finally permitted to receive their inheritance (Gen. 15.18; cf. Josh. 21.43-45; 1 Kings 4.21; 2 Chron. 9.26; Ps. 80.11; Neh. 9.7-8).
Daniel also alludes to this principle.
The prophet’s predictions are stunningly detailed, describing events hundreds of years into the future with phenomenal precision.
In one instance, he catalogs the rise of the “kingdom of Greece” about three hundred years before it became a kingdom (Dan. 8.21). At the time (7th-6th century B.C.), “Greece” itself was merely a hodgepodge of vying city-states rather than a cohesive entity.
Yet, Daniel foresees the conquests of king Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.). He also chronicles the subsequent period of the diadochi (“successors”), during which the kingdom was subdivided into four power centers (Ptolemaic [Egypt], Seleucid [Mesopotamia/Asia], Pergamon [Turkey], and Macedon [Greece]; cf. Dan. 8.22; 11.3ff).
In Daniel 8.23, he wrote that in the “latter time of their kingdom” the “transgressors” will have “reached their fulness.”
The identity of these “transgressors” is disputed. Anthony A. Bevan (1859-1933), a British scholar of oriental and Old Testament literature and a Fellow of Trinity College, suggests that it refers to the “heathen oppressors” of the Jews (p. 138).
Keil and Delitzsch, however, along with the majority of commentators, see the word as referring to Jewish apostates in the Seleucid empire (p. 317; cf. Dan. 8.12).
Regardless, the principle is this: those who defied God were given the latitude to continue in their sins, until they reached an intolerable limit, at which point punishment was dispensed.
The Old Testament contains numerous examples of this sacred principle put into practice (Gen. 6.1ff; 18.16ff; Judges 6-8; Jon 1.1ff; Oba 1.1ff; cf. Acts 14.16; 17.30; etc.).
New Testament Cases
In the New Testament, reference to the cumulative wrath of God is made in several passages.
First, in Matthew 23.32, the Lord told the Pharisees to “fill up…the measure of your father’s guilt.” Their fathers had persecuted and killed God’s prophets; but God had restrained his wrath. When the Jews’ of Jesus’ generation rejected both the Lord and his apostles, they had filled that cup of iniquity up to its brim. Thus, at long last, God destroyed them and the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (Mt. 23.37-24.35; Lk. 21.20ff).
Second, in Romans 2.5, Paul wrote of certain sinners who took advantage of the leniency of God by emboldening themselves, hardening their hearts, and refusing to repent. Astonishingly, they think they are getting away with their evil (Rom. 2.3), but they are in fact “treasuring up for [themselves] wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” Be assured: God’s wrath accumulates!
Third, in 1 Thessalonians 2.16, the apostle made reference to certain wicked Jews who prohibited him from attempting to save the Gentiles "so as always to fill up the measure of their sins.” Because of this, he promised, “wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.” This was the last straw for them!
Likewise, in Revelation 18.4-5, figurative Babylon was allowed to prosper for a time. Eventually, however, the prophet warns that “her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” Their cup of iniquity was overflowing, and “there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36.16) for such callous-hearted people.
With that in mind, if we are to treat the punishment of Nadab, Abihu, Uzzah, Ananias, Sapphira and others like them with fairness, it is imperative that we grasp some fundamental truths concerning the cumulative wrath of God.
First, there was (and still is) a divine standard for human behavior, to which even the Gentiles were amenable. If they breached that standard, God charged them with “iniquity.” Thus, God is an international God — we are all accountable to him (Ps. 9.8; 98.9; Jonah 1.2; Acts 17.30-31; cf. Ex. 9.29; Deut. 10.14; Job 41.11; Ps. 50.12; 1 Cor. 10.26).
Likewise, it is noteworthy that God will hold his own people — to whom he has committed his revealed word (cf. Ps. 147.19; Rom. 3.1-2) — to a stricter standard of culpability, because “to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Lk. 12.48; cf. Amos 3.1-2; see my article on “Is God More Lenient Today?”).
In the next place, though God will hold all men accountable for their sins — especially his own people (cf. Heb. 10.30; Deut. 32.36) — yet, God is also forbearing (Rom. 3.25).
The Old Testament describes him as erekh appayim, ‘long of nose/breath,’ as opposed to the “rapid, violent breathing through the nostrils” (Walker, p. 1918) that occurs when one is angry (Ex. 34.6; Num. 14.18; Ps. 86.15; Neh. 9.17; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2). In other words, God will, with long and deep breaths, patiently allow his wrath to accumulate, even if his refusal to punish sinners entails the wrongful suffering of his own people.
Scottish theologian, Marcus Dods (1834-1909), observed that, when God informed Abraham that his descendants would suffer horror and darkness in Egyptian bondage while God’s wrath toward the Amorites was filling up, he was teaching the patriarch
“that other men’s rights must be respected as well as his, and that not one hour before absolute justice requires it, shall the land of the Amorites be given to his posterity. And that man is considerably past the rudimentary knowledge of God who understands that every act of God springs from justices and not from caprice, and that no creature upon earth is sooner or later unjustly dealt with, by the Supreme Ruler” (p. 40).
Indeed, the Biblical record is filled with examples of this.
In Luke 18.7, Jesus insisted that God “shall…avenge his own elect who cry out day and night to him.” However, he notes that he may “bear long” with them. Richard Weymouth (1822-1902), in his translation of the New Testament called, The Modern Speech New Testament (1903), suggested the meaning: “although he seems slow in taking action on their behalf.”
No doubt, the Lord was alluding to the fact that God will show sinners forbearance, even if, in the meantime, those very sinners are afflicting his “own” people unjustly (cf. 2 Tim. 3.12; Ps. 34.19).
In that light, let us have a firm grasp of this concept, so that we do not lose heart when we, his people, endure wrongful suffering at the hands of wicked individuals (1 Pet 2.18-20).
Instead, let us remember that if God restrains the punishment of those who sin, it is to achieve either one of two ends.
First, he restrains punishment to achieve the salvation/repentance of the sinner(s). Consider a few cases which demonstrate this.
(1) Joseph’s brothers treated their youngest sibling and his parents with cruelty, by selling him to Egypt and claiming he had been killed by a wild beast (Gen. 37.12ff). For decades, his brothers were permitted to think they had gotten away with their sin.
In time, however, God providentially put Joseph into a position to be able to save his family (and countless others) from a famine and effect reconciliation with his brothers. He explained to them:
“you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen. 50.20-21).
When God allows wrongs to be committed, he has long-term benefits in mind (e.g., the crucifixion of Christ; cf. Rm. 11.30ff).
(2) Likewise, Paul reminded those sinners who had become sinfully emboldened by God’s restraint that the “riches of his goodness, forbearance, and long-suffering” were designed to “lead [them] to repentance” (Rom. 3.4). In other words, God held back their punishment in order to soften their hearts with his kindness; but some had “hardened” their hearts instead (v. 5).
(3) Peter also reminded us that “the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation” (2 Pet. 3.15), which should spur us all to “come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3.15, 9; cf. 1 Pet. 3.20).
(4) In the church of Christ in Thyatira, a sinful woman identified as “Jezebel” influenced God’s people to commit fornication and practice idolatry (Rev. 2.18-20). The Lord “gave her time to repent of her fornication, and she did not repent” (Rev. 3.21). Punishment was held off in an effort to give her the opportunity to change her behavior and restore her relationship with the Lord. But she did not “redeem the time” (Eph. 5.15-16).
(5) Saul of Tarsus was a fierce opponent of the Lord and his people (Acts 8.3). For a time, he was permitted to murder and harass the church. With each conquest he became bolder and more ravenous in his efforts (cf. Acts 9.1; 26.10-11; Gal. 1.13; 1 Tim. 1.13).
When at last he reached the depths of depravity, the Lord confronted him (Acts 9.3ff). Instead of punishing the man, however, he saved him, and Saul of Tarsus became the apostle Paul (Acts 13.9). Sometimes a man needs to hit rock-bottom in order to stand on a more solid surface.
Years later, Paul explained that the purpose of God in withholding his wrath against him — even while he unjustly slaughtered God’s people — was to demonstrate to the world that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Indeed, “for this reason I obtained mercy,” he explained, so “that in me first Jesus Christ might show all long-suffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Tim. 1.15-16).
I have often wondered what the surviving loved-ones of those Christians whom Saul had slain must have thought about God’s forbearance of that man. Perhaps, like Joseph, they took solace in the fact that, though what Saul had done was evil, yet, through allowing the Tarsian terrorist to commit atrocious acts with impunity, God was able to turn Saul's rage into a deep guilt (where God's kindness in the face of his misguided treachery effectively heaped "coals of fire" onto his conscience—Rom. 12.20), which in turn evolved into a profound passion and commitment to “save many people” for “everlasting life” (cf. Rom. 1.14-15).
Truly, of all people, Christians should be the most grateful for divine forbearance, because his restraint toward us while “we were still sinners” has amounted to our salvation (Rom. 5.8).
When, therefore, someone wrongs us, and, by divine providence, they are permitted to go unpunished for their iniquity, instead of complaining about this penal restraint as if it were a travesty of justice, should we not rejoice that God has given us the opportunity to better their lives (spiritually and materially) by influencing them with the ways of the gospel — to turn their evil into an ultimate “good” (Rom. 12.14-21; cf. Eph. 4.1-2; Col. 1.11; 1 Cor. 13.4; Heb. 10.34)?
Second, God also restrains punishment in order to allow sinners to embolden their attitudes (cf. Ps. 10:6; 50:21; Is. 26:10; Ecc. 8.11), harden their hearts (cf. Rom. 11.8; Deut. 2.30; Jn. 12.40), and embrace “strong delusion” (2 Thess. 2.11-12), so that, when at last his “absolute justice requires it,” he can make their condemnation all the more signal as a testimony to them and others that God is real, and all men should fear his holiness (Heb. 10.31; Lk. 12.5).
During the conquest of Canaan, the Bible explains that God had allowed the inhabitants of the land “to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them and that they might receive no mercy” (Josh. 11.20). Divine restraint was designed to harden hearts, so that, when their cup of iniquity was finally “complete,” he could bring about a fierce display of his justice for all the world to witness.
Paul affirmed that the reason God “endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” was because he wanted “to show his wrath and to make his power known” (Rom. 9.22). This is especially highlighted in the punishment of the antediluvian people in Noah’s flood (Gen. 6.1ff), the splintering of the languages at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11.ff), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18.16-19.1ff), the ten plagues of Egypt and the subsequent vanquishing of Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 5-14), the conquest of Canaan in which the Amorites were overthrown, the crushing of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Israel, Judah, and Rome, etc.
After each of these momentous episodes (and a legion of others), in which God restrains his punishment, sinners increase their wickedness, and God at last dispenses his wrath upon them, the rationale which God himself repeatedly provides is this: “then they shall know that I am the Lord” and “I will gain honor over” them; and, again, that God’s “name may be declared in all the earth” (cf. Ex. 7.5, 17; 8:22; 9.16; 14:4, 18; Ps. 9:16, 19-20; Ezek. 25.5, 7, 11, 14, 17; etc.).
In short, God can, by means of his forbearance, use the emboldening of evil doers for their salvation or their condemnation, as well as for the ultimate good of his people and plan.
Let us therefore be mindful of this larger objective, trusting that a just and providential God will punish those who deserve it in his own time (Isa. 60.22) and in his own way (Rom. 11.33; Heb. 10.30).
Accordingly, whether God punishes the sinner in this life or gives them a temporary reprieve, the principles of patience, long-suffering, meekness, and faith require the Christian to develop a “joyful acceptance of the will of God, whatever it may be” (Walker, p. 1918; cf. Col. 1.11; 1 Thess. 5.18; Rom. 8.28; 1 Pet. 3.17; 4.19).
Finally, it is imperative to learn that divine restraint is not a bottomless well. There is a limit to his forbearance!
Adam Clarke remarked that
“there is a certain pitch of iniquity to which nations may arrive before they are destroyed, and beyond which divine justice does not permit them to pass” (p. 108).
When that breaking point is finally reached, what does God intend to achieve by punishing those who do wrong?
Millard J. Erickson, in his excellent tome, Christian Theology, lists at least three reasons God dispenses punishment (pp. 625-628):
(1) To deter others from committing wrong (cf. Deut. 6.12-15; 8.11, 19-20; Jer. 7.12-14; Ps. 95.8-11).
(2) To discipline and correct (rehabilitate) those who have done wrong (cf. Ps. 107.10-16; 119.71; Heb. 12.6; Isa. 10.20-22).
(3) To give retribution to sinners for wrongs done (cf. Isa. 1.24; 61.2; 63.4; Jer. 46.10; Eze. 25.14; Ps. 94.1ff).
It is this final category with which so many take umbrage. But note this: when God dispenses retributive punishment, it always seems capricious, out-of-the-blue, and sudden from the sinner’s point-of-view. Yet, that is only because the sinner has ignored or rejected the bigger picture.
The truth is, God has patiently endured their defiance, warned them repeatedly, and given them ample opportunity to do the right thing. But the rebellious turn deaf ears away from his message, until one day, when they think they live in “peace and safety, then sudden destruction comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman; and they shall not escape” (1 Thess. 5.3). But what seems sudden and capricious to the wicked has been long-in-the-making to God and his people (1 Thess. 5.4ff; 2 Pet. 3.3ff)!
In light of this more comprehensive examination, take note of the following points.
(1) God alone knew the spiritual record of sinners like Nadab, Abihu, Uzzah, Ananias, and Sapphira (cf. 1 Kings 8.39; Ps. 139.2f). Our knowledge of their lives is scant in comparison. All we see is their cup of iniquity filled to its brim and primed for perdition.
Yet, given what we know about sacred justice, is it unreasonable to presume that these individuals had been filling up their cup of iniquity for years with a long history of sin, during which God had shown them forbearance? Is it not possible that these episodes that seem “sudden” and capricious to us were actually just the last straw that broke the camel’s back — the completion of the cumulative wrath of God?
(2) It should also be noted that these incidents involved the people of God, who, being warned by revelation, should have known better. There was, therefore, a stricter standard of culpability for them than for the unbelievers, who did not have the advantages of God’s people (Rom. 3.1ff). Consequently, since justice is proportional to the crimes committed (cf. “Is God More Lenient Today”), they merited an even “worse punishment” for their mutinous actions (Heb. 10.29ff).
(3) Finally, one must bear in mind that God may be working toward a larger goal than the one we can immediately perceive (cf. Rom. 11.33).
Evidently, the swift punishment of these particular individuals, and several others, served not only to administer justice on those sinners in particular, but also to achieve a more long-term boon for his plan. By ridding his people of the cancers in their midst, he was teaching his people to fear him and pursue holiness — to prevent further contamination among his people (cf. Acts 5.5, 11; 19.17ff).
On other occasions, however, consistent with that same plan, God has allowed the sinner to harden his heart without immediate reprisal, in order to bring about some future providential good — whether the salvation of the sinners themselves, and/or the ultimate well-being of others.
Before we impulsively denounce or question God’s decisions, therefore, it is more reasonable to acknowledge that God is much wiser than we are, and he alone knows whether it is best to punish or to extend forbearance to the sinner (cf. Rom. 16.27; Jude 25).
When we commit iniquity, we must acknowledge that our "cup" has filled up a little more. If we are recipients of his forbearance, let his kindness soften our hearts, put away the filth, and turn to him for cleansing, before it is too late!
Furthermore, it is certainly natural to desire that the one who wrongs us is punished with the swift sword of justice, so that they might not become emboldened in their wrongdoing. But Scripture counsels Christians to be “slow to wrath” (Jms. 1.19; Prov. 14:17; 16:32; Eccl. 7:9); yea, even to “give place to wrath” (Rm. 12.19), letting God administer “vengeance” as he sees fit.
Granted, that is not always easy to do. But if God, in his providence, should permit the sinner to go unpunished (or to endure a less stiff punishment than what we think they deserve), perhaps the following considerations will help us cope with such forbearance.
First, though Christians must be prepared to accept responsibility for wrongs we have done, and even to suffer the consequences of our actions, if necessary (cf. Acts 25.11), yet it is also natural to desire clemency for ourselves — to escape the full punishment which we otherwise deserve (cf. Gen. 50.15-17; Ps. 19.12; 25.11; 51.1-2; Amos 7.2; Lk. 18.13). Is it therefore right to crave lenience for ourselves, but to insist, with a pitiless heart of stone, that others be deprived of the same grace (cf. Mt. 6.14-15; 7.12; Lk. 6.37; 16.1-13)?
Second, we must respect the fact that God, whether in granting clemency or in dispensing swift punishment to those who wrong us, likely has a more far-reaching objective in mind. Surely, that is a thought from which believers can derive some comfort, no (2 Cor. 1.3ff)?
Third, we must also remember that God will always dispense punishment at the appropriate time, if not in this life, then certainly in the next (Deut. 32.35); whereas unrighteous men may be either too hasty or too slow in judgment.
Finally, the rationale that James himself provides for being “slow to wrath” is this: “for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1.20). God alone knows who is deserving of his vengeance and who would be better served with forbearance. Indeed, believers trust that God is “the avenger” (1 Thess. 4.6) of those who have filled their cup of iniquity to its brim; he will surely “repay” (Rm. 12.19) them justly for what they have done (cf. 1 Sam. 26.10-11; Rom. 13.4; 1 Pet 2.14). Whereas man is not even qualified “to direct his own steps” (Jer. 10.23). Inspired authors maintain that it is therefore best to leave such matters in his more than capable hands, trusting his providence either way.
Consequently, let us aspire to be “considerably past the rudimentary knowledge of God” by acknowledging that God is righteous in everything he does, and that we are the ones in need of being put to shame for our capricious ways (cf. Isa. 55.6-9; Rom. 3.4).
Bevan, A.A. A Short Commentary on the Book of Daniel. Cambridge: The University Press, 1892. Clarke, Adam. Clarke’s Commentary: Genesis—Esther. Nashville, Abingdon Press, n.d. Dods, Marcus (W. Robertson Nicoll, ed.). The Expositor’s Bible: Volume One. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1910. Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004. Kiel, C.F. and F. Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Vol. 6. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1884. Walker, W. L. (James Orr, et al., ed.). The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia: Vol. III. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986. Weymouth, Richard. The Modern Speech New Testament. New York: Baker & Taylor Co., 1903.