The compassionate Father presented by Jesus is prefigured in the prophets. A close reading of Isaiah or Jeremiah shows these writers engaging with this tension: how does a loving God deal with a people who consistently break their side of the covenant? They try to present the issue from Yahweh’s point of view. This is key to understanding Jesus’ inheritance, his imbibing of the divine presence whom he eventually addressed as ABBA, Father.
As often occurs, themes in the other writings of the Old Testament are given a crisp summary in the Psalms. In a time of personal distress, the psalmist wonders: ‘Has God forgotten to show mercy, or has his anger overcome his compassion?’ [Ps.77:9 JB]. At the community level, the prophets hope that God’s compassion will not be withdrawn despite the sins of the people. The pattern of cajoling and warning to the people that suffering will come upon them if they fail to repent is always a balancing act. ‘Yahweh’s anger lasts a moment, his favour a lifetime’ [Ps30:5 JB] sums up how the prophets presented the fundamental faithfulness of Yahweh. Humans will be unfaithful, but he is ever faithful. [cf. 2Tim:13].
The ‘wrath of God’ which also features in the scriptures, is an expression of the almost violent desire of God for us to turn to him when we have turned from him. It ( his anger ) is another manifestation of his love. There is a great frustration in a pure-hearted giver when the gift is refused, rebuffed or abused. God - on the evidence of history, past and current - has reason to be thoroughly disillusioned with the human response to his gifts. In this context, God’s turning away from wrath is also an exercise of his compassion. His sense of justice is not vindictive (balancing the book of his goodness versus our sinfulness) but restorative: how can I get across to the people that I love them for themselves? He puts our sins behind us, and behind Himself, deleted from the memory of God. Is this why some people cannot receive the good news: that it is too good to be true?
The prophets present not only how God is disposed to the human, but they also try to get us to see the issue from God’s side, as it were. There is pain, disappointment, melancholy in God at the human failure to grasp his munificence and bounty, and when we fail, his forgiveness. He hungers for us to be true to our best instincts, which is also to be true to his ways. His heart bleeds when he is wounded by unfaithfulness. Jesus paid with his life to get us to see this. Such is compassion.