“A Consuming Fire”: Holiness, Wrath, and Justice

by R. C. Sproul

WE LIVE IN A CULTURE WHERE THE VAST MAJORITY of the people occasionally gives lip service to the existence of God but almost never regards Him as holy. If some do acknowledge that He is holy, very few add to that holiness any idea of divine justice. And if we are able to find a handful of people who agree that God is both holy and just, it is next to impossible to find someone who will add to these elements the idea that God is wrathful.

The assumption in the world—and even in most of the church today—is that the love, mercy, and grace of God either swallow up the holiness, justice, and wrath of God or effectively trump them. It is common to hear the hymn "Amazing Grace" played or sung. But hardly anyone believes that grace is amazing. It is something we assume.

In this chapter, I want to examine a pair of biblical texts that I have preached on many times. However, I do not apologize for having made the point I wish to make before, for these are things we need to examine over and over again. The Bible says that "the LORD your God is a consuming fire" (Deut. 4:24), and we dare not forget it.

First, look with me at 1 Chronicles 13:

Then David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader. And David said to all the assembly of Israel, "If it seems good to you, and if it is of the LORD our God, let us send out to our brethren everywhere who are left in all the land of Israel, and with them to the priests and Levites who are in their cities and their common-lands, that they may gather together to us; and let us bring the ark of our God back to us, for we have not inquired at it since the days of Saul." Then all the assembly said that they would do so, for the thing was right in the eyes of all the people. So David gathered all Israel together, from Shihor in Egypt to as far as the entrance of Hamath, to bring the ark of God from Kirjath Jearim. And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, to Kirjath Jearim, which belonged to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD, who dwells between the cherubim, where His name is proclaimed. So they carried the ark of God on a new cart from the house of Abinadab, and Uzza and Ahio drove the cart. Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets. And when they came to Chidon's threshing floor, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzza, and He struck him because he put his hand to the ark; and he died there before God. And David became angry because of the LORD'S outbreak against Uzza; therefore that place is called Perez Uzza to this day. David was afraid of God that day, saying, "How can I bring the ark of God to me?" (vv. 1–12)

In seminary, I was taught that the biblical passages referring to sudden paroxysms of divine rage, such as the record in this passage of the killing of Uzza with no warning, manifested the truth that the Old Testament is not the inspired Word of God, but is an account of the popular religion of a semi-nomadic group of people who were pre-scientific and unsophisticated. I was taught that these episodes are totally incompatible with the New Testament portrait of the God of love revealed in Jesus. What I experienced in seminary was a revival of the Marcionite heresy, an attempt to purge from the Bible all references to the angry deity of the Old Testament.

In contrast to what I was taught, I believed that since this episode and others like it were recorded in the pages of sacred Scripture, they at least deserved to be considered with the philosophy of the second glance. I still believe that. So let us take another look at this confusing and horrifying event in the history of God's people.

An Attempt to Restore Glory

King David assembled the whole nation of Israel for this celebration. He decided to bring the ark of the covenant, the most sacred vessel of Israel's religion, to the Holy Place. After the ark had been captured by the Philistines and later returned, it had been stored away in the house of Abinadab in Kirjath Jearim, removed from the life of the people (see 1 Sam. 4–7). David wanted to restore the glory to Israel. He wanted to restore the throne of God to its proper place. So he had a new cart made to carry this precious cargo, and he had Uzza and Ahio lead the oxen that were pulling the cart carrying the ark. It was a glorious and festive occasion. The ark on its cart was accompanied by choirs singing anthems and by musicians playing harps, cymbals, and other instruments.

Then tragedy struck. This great parade was moving wonderfully until one of the oxen stumbled, and when that happened the cart tilted and the sacred ark of the covenant began to slide. Suddenly the ark was in immediate danger of falling into the dirt and mud, where it would be desecrated. Uzza, probably acting instinctively out of a sense of respect for this sacred object, stretched forth his hand to steady the ark. What does Scripture say? As soon as he steadied the ark and kept it from falling into the mud, the heavens opened and a deep voice shouted from heaven, "Thank you, Uzza!" No, that's not how it happened. As soon as Uzza touched the ark, he was stricken. God executed him instantly.

Oh, the gymnastics my Old Testament professors went through in seminary when they dealt with this passage. They would say, "That's the way it seemed to these unsophisticated Hebrews who were watching this incident, but surely the man died of a heart attack generated by his terror that he had ventured to touch the sacred object." Or my professors would say, "This is evidence that the Old Testament portrays God's wrath as arbitrary, whimsical, and capricious." One professor even spoke about the "dark side" of Yahweh, a demonic element within the nature of God Himself.

Evidently these professors never had read Numbers 4. God had designated the responsibility for the priestly duties and for teaching to the tribe of Levi. Levi was a large tribe, so it was broken down into clans, and the clans were broken down into families. One of those clans of the Levites was the Kohathites, and their sole responsibility was to look after the sacred vessels of the tabernacle, including the transportation of those vessels. If you recall, God Himself designed the ark of the covenant. It was a wooden chest covered in gold, and it had rings on the ends and in the middle. When the tabernacle was moved from place to place, the Kohathites placed lengthy poles of wood through the rings, and they lifted the ark by those poles and carried it on foot. That was God's specifically designated method for moving the ark. It was not to be carried on a cart and it was not to be touched by the Kohathites. For this reason, God said in Numbers 4:15, "They must not touch the holy things or they will die." This command was passed down from father to son to grandson among the Kohathites. Every Kohathite knew it.

We don't know for sure that Uzza and Ahio were Kohathites, but they probably were or they would not have been assigned this task. It is difficult to imagine that they did not know this command of God. Yet, when the ark began to fall, Uzza touched it.

Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on this topic. He said that the sin of Uzza was the sin of arrogance. Arrogance? Didn't he risk his life to make sure that the ark of the covenant would not be marred or spoiled by coming into contact with the mud? Edwards said that Uzza's arrogance is seen in his assumption that contact with the mud would be a greater sacrilege than contact with the hand of a sinful human being. What is mud but earth mixed with water? There is nothing innately sinful about earth or mud. If the ark of the covenant had touched the ground, the earth would not have polluted it. But there was sin in Uzza. Contact with his flesh was far more desecrating than contact with the earth. That is why God commanded the Kohathites not to touch the ark. But Uzza arrogantly violated that command and thereby profaned the most holy object in Israel, so God executed him.

Playing with Strange Fire

We read of a similar incident in Leviticus 10: "Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD" (vv. 1–2). What was going on? What was the strange fire that Nadab and Abihu offered on the altar? I don't know. But whatever was in the fire that made it profane, it did not please God. These young priests were simply involved in experimental worship. Maybe they wanted to change the liturgy that God had ordained in such a way that it would be more appealing to the congregation. If so, they missed the fundamental principle of worship—our method of worship is to be determined not by what is pleasing to us but by what is pleasing to God.

The most "successful" worship service ever recorded in the Bible is found in the Old Testament. It broke all attendance records, and the singing was so full of gusto that it was heard miles away on a mountain. One of the men who heard this celebration thought a war had broken out. But when he took time to investigate, he discovered it was not a war. Instead, it was a worship service—one with a golden calf (Ex. 32). Nothing attracts greater crowds than practices of idolatry.

But Nadab and Abihu were just trying to improve on the worship of Israel. They devised a new way to sacrifice. They offered unique fire on the altar, and as soon as they did, fire came out from the altar and consumed them.

How did Aaron respond to this horrifying event? Let's go back a moment to the death of Uzza. According to 1 Chronicles, Uzza was killed because God was angry with him for touching the ark. When Uzza was executed by the wrath of God, who else got mad? David. Even David had trouble dealing with the wrath of God. But long before David, there was this incident in which the sons of Aaron were executed by God in His wrath. What was going on in Aaron's mind? He was a father. I can see him saying: "God, what have You done? These were my sons. They were following in my footsteps. All they did was tinker a little bit with the fire on the altar." So in obvious distress, he went and spoke to Moses. The text tells us:

And Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke, saying:

'By those who come near Me

I must be regarded as holy;

And before all the people

I must be glorified.' "

So Aaron held his peace. (v. 3)

The Bible is often filled with understatement, and this is one example of it. You have to read between the lines here in verse 3. Moses said: "Aaron, this is what the Lord spoke. Don't you remember what the Lord said at your ordination, when He set you apart and consecrated you to a holy vocation—that those who come near to Him must regard Him as holy?" Apparently God had given this command to the priests. But instead of regarding God as holy when they came before Him, Nadab and Abihu had come in profanity.

How often do we pastors give God equally profane worship when we dare to come into His presence without considering Him as holy, without seeing our primary responsibility in our celebration of worship as displaying the glory of God, revealing His majesty before the whole congregation? We need to think on this.

What does the text say that Aaron did when Moses gave him this reminder? Again, Moses employs masterful understatement. He writes, "So Aaron held his peace." There was nothing else for Aaron to do. There was no room for debate. God had said, "I will be regarded as holy by anyone who comes near to me."

The text goes on to say, "Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, 'Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp' " (v. 4). Having killed Nadab and Abihu, was God now being a little bit gracious, allowing Aaron's family to recover the bodies and take them out for a proper burial? No. Moses said the bodies were to be taken "out of the camp." We are told, "So they went near and carried them by their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said" (v. 5).

Notice what follows:

Moses said to Aaron, and Eleazar and Ithamar, his sons, "Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the people. But let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD has kindled. You shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you." And they did according to the word of Moses. (vv. 6–7)

Do you see what God said through Moses? "I don't want the bodies of Nadab and Abihu in the camp. I don't want anyone rending their garments and lamenting in dust and ashes. I don't want a wake for these men. They polluted My sanctuary. I want their bodies and everything associated with them carried outside the camp, because they have profaned Me with their false worship."

Images of Divine Wrath

Perhaps the most famous sermon ever preached on American soil was preached in the eighteenth century in Enfield, Connecticut, by Jonathan Edwards. You probably know the name of that sermon: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." I read that sermon for the first time in college; it was required reading as an example of sadistic preaching. I thought, even then, that a sadistic preacher would do everything in his power to tell his congregation that there was no such place as hell, while secretly enjoying the inevitability that they would plunge into it. But Edwards was no sadist. He loved God and he loved people. He cared about their ultimate destination, so he preached on the terrors of hell to encourage them to flee to Christ.

Edwards' sermon has been used in classrooms because of its graphic imagery of the wrath of God. Edwards comes under criticism for using such imagery, but the vast majority of the images he used to describe the perilous situation of impenitent people were drawn from Scripture itself. His main text, "Their foot shall slide in due time" (Deut. 32:35, KJV), draws a picture of a man crossing a deep chasm on a rope bridge that is swinging to and fro in the breeze, with planks that are covered with moss, making them slippery and hiding the ones that are rotted through, so that his every step on the bridge may be his last before he slips and falls into the abyss. Such a fall was not simply probable, it was inevitable. God warned sinners that if they did not repent, their feet would slip in time.

Another metaphor was that of a dam holding back floodwaters. Edwards said that the wrath of God is like those waters, stored up behind a dam. I remember thinking about this sermon when we were watching the televised images of the devastation wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The news programs showed the increasing volume of water, which posed a mounting threat to the levies around New Orleans. When one of the levies would give way, tons and tons of water would burst through and inundate parts of the city. Edwards said God's wrath is like those waters as they built up. He noted the apostle Paul's teaching in Romans 2:5: "But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." The unsuspecting person goes to bed at ease in Zion, with no fear that the dam will ever burst.

Then Edwards used the metaphor of the bow, again borrowing from Old Testament imagery. The psalmist writes, "If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow" (Ps. 7:12a). It is not that God has His fingers on the bowstring and is thinking about drawing it. The bow is already bent and His arrow is aimed at the heart of the unrepentant sinner. The only thing that is keeping that arrow from flying to its target is the hand of God that holds it. But it is inevitable that if the sinner does not repent, God will release the arrow of His wrath.

Of course, the most vivid imagery in Edwards' sermon is that of the spider in the web. When Edwards was a teenager, he wrote a technical essay on the behavior of spiders, so he was knowledgeable about spiders and their webs. For example, he knew that when a heavy stone is dropped on a spider's web, the web will not hold it back; rather, the stone will burst through. In a similar way, he said, the imagined righteousness of the people would not be able to stop the fall of God's wrath.

Switching the metaphor, Edwards then compared the unrepentant sinner to a spider held over a flame. He said:

It is nothing but [God's] hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.… You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

People believe that Edwards' sermon was about wrath, and it was, but I believe it was more about the grace of God. Edwards told the Enfield congregation, "There is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up." Apart from the gospel, there is no reason why any of us is alive today and not in hell.

Sadly, Edwards' sermon wouldn't scare anyone in our culture or in our churches, because people do not believe in hell anymore. The most brazen lie of all is the lie people tell themselves: "I have nothing to worry about from the wrath of God. My God is a God of love." If that is your thought, your god is an idol.

An Inalienable Right to Grace?

My favorite illustration of how callous we have become with respect to the mercy, love, and grace of God comes from the second year of my teaching career, when I was given the assignment of teaching two hundred and fifty college freshman an introductory course on the Old Testament. On the first day of the class, I gave the students a syllabus and I said: "You have to write three short term papers, five pages each. The first one is due September 30 when you come to class, the second one October 30, and the third one November 30. Make sure that you have them done by the due date, because if you don't, unless you are physically confined to the infirmary or in the hospital, or unless there is a death in the immediate family, you will get an F on that assignment. Does everybody understand that?" They all said, "Yes."

On September 30, two hundred and twenty-five of my students came in with their term papers. There were twenty-five terrified freshmen who came in trembling. They said: "Oh, Professor Sproul, we didn't budget our time properly. We haven't made the transition from high school to college the way we should have. Please don't flunk us. Please give us a few more days to get our papers finished."

I said: "OK, this once I will give you a break. I will let you have three more days to get your papers in, but don't you let that happen again."

"Oh, no, we won't let it happen again," they said. "Thank you so, so, so much."

Then came October 30. This time, two hundred students came with their term papers, but fifty students didn't have them. I asked, "Where are your papers?"

They said: "Well, you know how it is, Prof. We're having midterms, and we had all kinds of assignments for other classes. Plus, it's homecoming week. We're just running a little behind. Please give us just one more chance."

I asked: "You don't have your papers? Do you remember what I said the last time? I said, 'Don't even think about not having this one in on time.' And now, fifty of you don't have them done."

"Oh, yes," they said, "we know."

I said: "OK. I will give you three days to turn in your papers. But this is the last time I extend the due date."

Do you know what happened? They started singing spontaneously, "We love you, Prof Sproul, oh, yes, we do." I was the most popular professor on that campus.

But then came November 30. This time one hundred of them came with their term papers, but a hundred and fifty of them did not. I watched them walk in as cool and as casual as they could be. So I said, "Johnson!"

"What?" he replied.

"Do you have your paper?"

"Don't worry about it, Prof," he responded. "I'll have it for you in a couple of days."

I picked up the most dreadful object in a freshman's experience, my little black grade book. I opened it up and I asked, "Johnson, you don't have your term paper?"

He said, "No"

I said, "F," and I wrote that in the grade book. Then I asked, "Nicholson, do you have your term paper?"

"No, I don't have it."

"F. Jenkins, where is your term paper?"

"I don't have it."


Then, out of the midst of this crowd, someone shouted, "That's not fair." I turned around and asked, "Fitzgerald, was that you who said that?"

He said, "Yeah, it's not fair."

I asked, "Weren't you late with your paper last month?"

"Yeah," he responded.

"OK, Fitzgerald, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. If it's justice you want, it's justice you will get." So I changed his grade from October to an F. When I did that, there was a gasp in the room. I asked, "Who else wants justice?" I didn't get any takers.

There was a song in the musical My Fair Lady titled "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." Well, those students had grown accustomed to my grace. The first time they were late with their papers, they were amazed by grace. The second time, they were no longer surprised; they basically assumed it. By the third time, they demanded it. They had come to believe that grace was an inalienable right, an entitlement they all deserved.

I took that occasion to explain to my students: "Do you know what you did when you said, 'That's not fair'? You confused justice and grace." The minute we think that anybody owes us grace, a bell should go off in our heads to alert us that we are no longer thinking about grace, because grace, by definition, is something we don't deserve. It is something we cannot possibly deserve. We have no merit before God, only demerit. If God should ever, ever treat us justly outside of Christ, we would perish. Our feet would surely slip.

Among those now reading this book, there are many who are assuming they are not going to go to hell. But if there is a God (and there is), and if He is holy (and He is), and if He is just (and He is), He could not possibly be without wrath. If you have not been reconciled to Him through the blood of His Son, the only thing you have to look forward to is His wrath, which is a divine wrath, a furious wrath, and an eternal wrath. God must be regarded as holy by anyone who comes near Him. So if you would come into the presence of God, consider the nature of the God whom you are approaching, that you may come covered by the righteousness of Christ.


Chapter 10: In Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God (pp. 133–145). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.


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