by John MacArthur, (Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1–8)
The wrath of God isn’t some mystical phenomenon. Nor is it limited to judgment events at the end of time. The Bible speaks of God’s wrath as a present and tangible reality coming down from heaven. That’s what the apostle Paul meant when he said that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Romans 1:18, emphasis added).
God’s wrath is rendered from “heaven.” Despite Satan’s present power as prince of the air and of this world, the earth is ultimately dominated by heaven, the throne of God, from which His wrath is constantly and dynamically manifested in the world of men.
Paul frequently speaks about the wrath, indicating a specific time or type of wrath. Although the NASB rendering does not indicate it, there is a definite article before “wrath” in Romans 3:5, which should read, “who inflicts the wrath.” It is a subject Paul continually makes reference to throughout his epistle to Rome. In chapter 5 he speaks of our being “saved from the wrath of God through” Christ (Romans 5:9). In chapter 12 he instructs those who are vengeful to “leave room for the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19). And in chapter 13 he reminds his readership to be in subjection to God “not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake” (Romans 13:5). Around five years earlier he assured the fearful Christians in Thessalonica that Jesus delivers them “from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Heaven reveals God’s wrath in two ways: through His moral order and through His personal intervention. When God made the world, He built in certain moral as well as physical laws that have since governed its operation. Just as a person falls to the ground when he jumps from a high building, so does he fall into God’s judgment when he deviates from God’s moral law. That is built-in wrath. When a person sins, there is a built-in consequence that inexorably works. In this sense God is not specifically intervening, but is letting the law of moral cause and effect work.
The second way in which God reveals His wrath from heaven is through His direct and personal intervention. He is not an impersonal cosmic force that set the universe in motion to run its own course. God’s wrath is executed exactly according to His divine will.
Several Hebrew words which convey a highly personal character are used in the Old Testament to describe God’s anger. Charah is used ninety-one times. It refers to becoming heated, to burning with fury, and is frequently used of God (see, e.g., Genesis 18:30). Charon is used forty-one times. It refers exclusively to divine anger and means “a burning, fierce wrath” (see, e.g., Exodus 15:7). Qatsaph, which means bitter, is used thirty-four times, most of which refer to God (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 1:34). The fourth term for wrath is chemah, which also refers to a venom or poison, is frequently associated with jealousy and is used most often of God (see, e.g., 2 Kings 22:13). David declared that “God is a righteous judge, and a God who has indignation every day” (Psalm 7:11). “Indignation” translates zaam, which means to foam at the mouth, and is used over twenty times in the Old Testament, often of God’s wrath.
Some people try to downplay God’s role in the wrath we see in Scripture by blaming the devil. But this is not a form of wrath that is satanic in origin. Whether it is cause and effect wrath or the personal fury of God being meted out, that wrath originates in heaven.
And we can find comfort—as well as fear—in that fact. We should flee God’s wrath in fear, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that our sovereign has provided a us with a certain means of escape—the Savior whom He also sent from heaven.