When we think about God’s faithfulness, we usually think about it in context of God’s love, mercy, provision, and grace. We think about certain hymns:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” emphasizes the compassion, love, and provision of God’s faithfulness, following the Lamentations 3 passage it draws from. Similarly, we know from 1 John 1:9 that God’s faithfulness directs His forgiveness of believers. Such aspects of God’s faithfulness are applied to times of suffering and temptation, knowing that ultimately God will be faithful to provide relief and escape. In short, we think of God’s faithfulness as a “nice” attribute of God, as opposed to His wrath, justice, judgment, holiness, etc.
However, not all God’s promises are “nice” promises. In Deuteronomy 28 God does promise Israel blessings for obedience, but He also promises curses for disobedience. For God to be faithful, He must punish perennial disobedience of Israel, which He did repeatedly in the book of Judges and decisively through the Babylonian captivity. This “wrathful” faithfulness of God intuitively appears very different from His “nice” faithfulness in giving blessings, comfort, and protection. Is there a connection between God’s “nice” faithfulness and “wrathful” faithfulness?
In Exodus 4:24-26 we read a seemingly strange story:
Now it came about at the lodging place on the way that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.” So He let him alone. At that time she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood”—because of the circumcision.
When Moses met God at the burning bush, God told him to go to Egypt to deliver Israel. The story in our passage occurs on Moses’ journey from Midian to Israel. For years, I always felt it was out of place between Moses’ encounter with God and His confrontations of Pharaoh. Why is it placed here in the narrative? What does it have to do with the context? What is its purpose? Thanks to a book by Thomas Schreiner I now know!
When God first sent Moses to deliver Israel, Moses resisted. He questioned who God was, how the people would know God spoke to Him, how he could be a spokesperson for God without good speaking skills, etc. Moses didn’t trust God. It becomes evident throughout the Exodus that Israel didn’t trust God either. So God needed to prove His faithfulness to Moses and to Israel. At the burning bush, God cited His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and His faithfulness during their lifetime. God claimed He would fulfill every promise He made to the patriarchs.
This actually presents a problem for Moses and his family, because one of the promises God made to Abraham involved circumcision (Genesis 17). According to this covenant, Abraham was required to circumcise himself and his sons, and his family was to continue this ritual through all its generations. He who was not circumcised was to be put to death, else God’s covenant would be broken (see verse 14). But Moses’ sons were not circumcised; he had not kept the covenant. How could God be faithful to his promises and covenants if He let the instrument of Israel’s salvation violate the covenant given to Abraham? How could Israel then believe God to be faithful if He ignored this part of the Abrahamic covenant?
In order to maintain His covenant with Abraham, God threatened to kill Moses for not circumcising his sons. This is “wrathful” faithfulness. But the purpose of the “wrathful” faithfulness in this passage is to demonstrate how seriously and carefully God keeps all His promises, even unpleasant ones. The passage argues thusly: if God would threaten the life of His chosen instrument of salvation because of one of His promises, how much more then would God keep all his “nice” promises to the patriarchs by blessing Israel and delivering them from Egypt!
This example of God’s “wrathful” faithfulness teaches us two interrelated things about God’s faithfulness. If God is not faithful to His “wrathful” promises and character, then God is not faithful at all, and we have no consolation in God’s faithfulness for our times of need. Similarly, God’s faithfulness to His “wrathful” promises is proof of the consistency and virtue of His character, which gives us hope in our times of need.
We can conclude by noticing God’s “wrathful” faithfulness is immediately applicable to our lives. Since we cannot expect God to ignore sin, as this would be unfaithfulness to His self-revelation, we must take sin seriously, since He will punish all sin. Also because God punishes all sin, we can rest assured in the future vindication of God’s people from those who oppress them. Because God is even faithful in punishing sin, we can be sure God will be faithful to comfort and provide for us. Finally, since God is faithful to all His promises, we should pray these promises out before God that He might fulfill them. Great is God’s faithfulness!