I love writing for sharp readers; they keep me on my toes. And recently, on my post “The Easy Way to Do a Responsible Bible Word Study,” after studying the word hilasterion, one of them presented me with a challenge:
Can we do a high quality word study using everyday English? . . . “Wrath” would be a different, challenging word to work with. But could you do it avoiding jargon!?
This reader laid the gauntlet down with that final punctuation (“!?”). So let’s do this thing!
Step 0: Assume that the most responsible dictionaries are already right.
“Wrath.” The major dictionaries of American English (I’m always checking MW, NOAD, and AHD) tell me that in my dialect this is a “literary” or “humorous” word for severe anger. As in, “I drove my father’s new car very gingerly lest I scratch it and incur his wrath.” The word seems to hold on to its theological overtones even in our secular world, but with a bit of a barb. Maybe I’m reading too much theology into the word, but American English speakers don’t seem to think “wrath” is ever justified: the dictionaries say that “wrath” is either ironic or, if it’s serious, “extreme” or “vindictive” anger.
Christianity has had a profound impact on our English, or we probably wouldn’t still have a word like “wrath.” On the other hand, English hearts resist God’s prerogative to be righteously wrathful against their sin—and if “vindictive” is truly baked into the word, readers may misunderstand when they see the word in a Bible translation.
“Wrath” is a Bible word, and the Bible uses it differently than average people do. And that’s okay. Our task is to observe what the Bible means by “wrath” in any given case. And the biblical studies dictionaries you’ll come across offer a different spin on the word than contemporary English dictionaries do: BDAG, for example, defines the Greek word ὀργή (orge) as “strong indignation directed at wrongdoing, with focus on retribution.”
There are two kinds of dictionaries, then, that you need to assume are “right”:
- Contemporary English dictionaries are right to describe what “wrath” means to most English speakers: vindictive anger.
- Greek and Hebrew dictionaries made for biblical studies are also right (not perfect, but right) when they define the key Hebrew and Greek terms most often translated “wrath” as retributive anger.
Of course, what do you call retributive anger that you don’t consider justified? Vindictive. As we’ll see, such anger is in the Bible, too. But, as we’ll see, because God is holy, he can express just and deserved retributive anger toward sin and sinners.
But we can’t let the dictionaries do all the seeing for us; we need to see for ourselves.
Step 1: Pick a passage.
Pick a passage, not a word. Why? Because one English word may translate multiple original language words. If you just study the word “wrath” disconnected from any particular passage, you’ll have your hands full a bunch of Greek and Hebrew words. It will likely cause confusion. So it’s safest to focus on one passage where “wrath” shows up.
I say pick the passage that got you interested in studying “wrath” in the first place. Or if you didn’t come to the topic through a passage, try studying the first “wrath” passage that comes to mind. Barring that, do some searching and pick a passage that seems significant or interesting. There’s no ironclad rule here. I’ll stick with the passage we were in for the previous post, Romans 3. In verse 5 Paul writes,
But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) (Romans 3:5 ESV)
This comes as the fifth use of the word in the book, and we’re only in chapter 3. Importantly, the word shows up in the opening paragraph of the body of Paul’s letter, in Romans 1:18:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18 ESV)
The word shows up in chapter 2 as well, and it points to a major theme in this portion of the letter. The issue of “God’s wrath” against human unrighteousness in Romans 1–4ish is clearly key to understanding Romans. This is a worthy place to do a Bible word study.
Step 2: Expect to build a stronger foundation for what you already know.
My goal in a word study on wrath in this passage is to state the obvious, to reach a conclusion I already know. I admit this sounds odd, but what’s the alternative? Are most Bible students really going to conclude that the various dictionaries they have are wrong? But that doesn’t mean your word study will be worthless. You will state the obvious with more confidence: “wrath” in Romans 3:5 means “retributive anger.” We’ll modify this a bit for contextual reasons—but only a bit. In a bit.
Another way to state this same goal: you should aim to familiarize yourself with all the data so that when you come to the commentaries (more on that later) you are ready to follow and weigh their argumentation.
Step 3: Use the Bible Word Study tool in Logos to find out how much data you have to go on.
The reader asked me to use “everyday English,” so I’m assuming that my target audience here is people who can’t start with Greek or Hebrew. So let’s get to the Greek behind Romans 3:5 through an English version.
Just call up any translation that has been tagged (all the major ones have), right click on “wrath,” and select the “Lemma” on the right. Then click “Bible Word Study” on the left. This is the way the context menu always works: select something on the right and then do something with that something on the left.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t read the Hebrew and Greek words: the “lemma” (the dictionary form of a given word) will always be there.
The Bible Word Study that comes up will give you easy access to your lexicons (dictionaries) right at the top. Those, of course, are worth consulting. This is where you’ll access BDAG (if you own it) and find its definition, focused on retributive anger.
Below the lexicons you’ll see a “ring graph.” It will show you the main English words used to translate the Greek word we’re now studying.
Click the blue portion of the graph and it will expand to reveal the passages in which our Greek word is translated “wrath.”
You’ll see quickly that Jesus and Paul both use the word “wrath,” and Paul uses it more than any other NT author. But it also shows up in Hebrews and Revelation.
Uses of this word in the New Testament and other early Christian literature are what you have to go on for your study. This is the raw data you’ll be using. The Bible Word Study gives you links to search the Septuagint, for example (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), for the word.
Step 4: Look for contextual redundancies.
Now, when you find usages of your word in other contexts in the New Testament or Septuagint, what are you looking for?
You want “contextual redundancies,” clues in surrounding words and sentences as to what a word means.
The first use of ὀργή (orge; “wrath”) in the NT is from the lips of John:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Matthew 3:7 ESV)
The “wrath to come” would seem to be an event, then—though John may be using the literary device called “synecdoche,” in which the part represents the whole. God’s “wrath” will be a major element of judgment day, so John speaks of the whole event as “wrath.”
Jesus’ statement in John 3:36, however, shows that “wrath” is not always used this way:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36 ESV)
“Wrath” can remain “on” someone, as well as strike him suddenly.
Romans 2 probably helps us the most in our little search for “contextual redundancies.” Paul is speaking to religious people:
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…. For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:5–8 ESV)
We already knew there’d be a “day of wrath.” Now we find out that wrath is something you can “store up for yourself,” and that this wrath will come as part of “God’s righteous judgment.” And in that day God’s wrath will be joined by his “fury.”
Romans 3:5 itself is part of a paragraph in which wrath leads to judgment—see the next verse, where Paul asks, if God’s wrath is not righteous, “How could God judge the world?”
Every one of these contextual clues is a brick in the foundation underneath our understanding of the word “wrath” as “retributive anger.” Do you see how it’s one thing to look up the word and see that definition and another thing to look at the data that led the dictionary writers to come to that definition? Whatever “wrath” means in English; whatever its equivalents meant in Greek and Hebrew, its meaning in the Bible does have a clear retributive component.
Step 5: Go to the dictionaries and commentaries.
Now that you’ve done your own bricklaying, you can go to the dictionaries and commentaries and let them make the foundation wall underneath your understanding of “wrath” straighter—and maybe add a few bricks.
BDAG, for example, gives me a little “preachable” point: “[orge] is a legitimate feeling on the part of a judge” (720). This is a quotation from Synesius, whom one of my dictionaries in Logos describes as a bishop from Libya.
The commentaries, too, will have valuable things to tell you once you’ve built your own foundation. I will not include one for space reasons, but I promise you the commentaries will mean more to you after you’ve done your own word study.
Each such study should end in some kind of “use,” some kind of practical ramification in your life and, as applicable, in the lives of your hearers.
Let’s let God’s Spirit himself, through the pen of Peter, make application to us:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10–13 ESV)
The word “wrath” does not occur here, but clearly, the “day of the Lord” and the “day of wrath” (Rom 2:5) are one and the same—or at least bear a strong relationship. A good word study will remember the difference between word and concept and will not claim to have exhausted the Bible’s teaching on the concept of “wrath” after a mere survey of the uses of the word. The Bible can say things about God’s wrath without using the word “wrath.”
In any case, Peter’s application of the truth of God’s wrath is: Live holy and godly lives, both “waiting for” and even “hastening” that day of God! Use the reminder of further wrath not only to encourage righteousness in your own conduct but to inspire your hope in a future in which a true righteousness will dwell uncontested on a new earth. Study of God’s wrath did not make Peter dour; it made him sober—and joyful.
A good Bible word study should hopefully do the same for you.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.