Where’s the Love in the Old Testament?
My parents have lived out God’s love in their lives and taught me about it from a very young age. Despite this training, I have always struggled to believe that God loves me. I have no problem believing that He loves others, but somehow that truth has a difficult time in making it down to my heart.
Many of my students also struggle to believe that God loves them. Especially when they look at God in the Old Testament, they have a hard time trusting Him because of all the horrible stories and evil actions that are recorded there. In light of this, I recently decided to summarize for them (and for myself!) the most meaningful evidences for God’s love in the Old Testament.
God’s character. If we want to get to know people, the most important thing is to hear what they say about themselves. And God made very clear what His character is actually like in the Old Testament, despite how people misunderstand and misrepresent Him. When God met with Moses, who wanted to see Him (Ex. 33:17–23), He described Himself in such a powerful way (34:6, 7) that these two verses are often quoted and alluded to throughout the Bible as a true picture of who God is (Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2).
YHWH first states that He is a God of love (often translated as “merciful”). The love of God is not a uniquely New Testament concept, as the word in Hebrew is associated with the love of a mother, compassion from the womb. Next, YHWH describes Himself as gracious, granting undeserved favor to all those under His care. God is also longsuffering (literally “long of nostril” or slow to anger) and very patient with our mistakes and sins. In fact, YHWH abounds in lovingkindness or khesed, which is so hard to translate because it summarizes everything good about God: love, faithfulness, loyalty, kindness, etc. God also abounds in truth, which is probably better translated “faithfulness” or “stability,” which means He is true to Himself and reliable and consistent over time.
Not only does God abound in khesed, but He also guards “lovingkindness for thousands” (vs. 7, NASB), likely referring to thousands of generations! In addition, God tells Moses that He forgives all types of sin, using the Hebrew word for “forgive” that literally means “to bear.” In other words, God’s desire is to take our sin on Himself and bear it. Only at the very end of His description did YHWH tell Moses that He punishes those who are guilty, who do not accept His grace or His forgiveness. This is God’s justice, taking the consequences of sin on Himself if we are willing, but if not, making things right in a just way.
Exodus 34:6 and 7 paints an incredible picture of God, and God’s very character exhibits true love in every facet. When we examine all other stories in the Old Testament in the light of God’s character portrayed here, we realize that evil is not caused by Him but by Satan, other humans, or natural evil.
God creates. As the Creator of the whole universe, the love of God is shown in His care for all of His creation. He provides food and water and shelter for all creatures (Genesis 1; Psalm 104), and He even loves the land itself (Deut. 11:12). YHWH blesses His creation and sanctifies it with His presence (Gen. 2:3). God makes humans in His image, so that they can exhibit His same love and care toward all creation, ruling as God would do (1:26)! Each creature and part of the creation is valuable because God made it, not necessarily because of its usefulness. God created for relationship and continues to value each creature as it relates to Him (Ps. 104:27–30). God also sustains every breath of life, exhibiting His loving care toward His creation every moment.
God covenants. God does not just create us and leave us, but desires a true and deep relationship with His creation. God makes covenants with people, and even with animals (Genesis 9) and other nations—hinted at in Isaiah 19:19 to 22; and Amos 9:7. The elements of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34) are present in every other covenant God makes with His people: He will write His law on their hearts, He will be their God and they will be His people, all will know God, and He will forgive their sins.* When covenanting with Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, and all Israel, God used similar words and concepts to show that His desire is to be in a heart relationship with His people. Covenants are never created by the people, but always originate with God.
God circumcises our hearts. As a part of the covenant relationship, God makes clear that we need our hearts circumcised in order to love Him in return (Deut. 10:16). However, it is also clear that we cannot do that on our own, so God promises to do it Himself (30:6). It is hopeless for us without God’s love, as He is the one to inspire and transform us, enabling us to love and obey.
God’s love compounds—exponentially! The love in the Old Testament does not stop with God; His love engenders true love in all sorts of human relationships. Husband and wife have the very “flame of the Lord” between them (Song of Solomon 8:6, NASB), indicating that it is God who ignites the most intimate of human loves. God also portrays the love between parent and child as being modeled and initiated by Him, as our heavenly Parent (Hosea 11:1–4). Even the love between friends is connected to and inspired by the love of God. As our ultimate spouse, parent, and friend, God exhibits what this compounding love looks like, as He sings exuberantly over His people (Zeph. 3:17).
God charges us to love the unlovable. Love in the Old Testament is not just for those who love us back. God also loves the unlovable, the vulnerable, and strangers, and calls us to do the same as we reflect His love (Deut. 10:18, 19). God loves mercy, justice, and righteousness (Jer. 9:24), and so should we. Love from God leads us to love others (Micah 6:8). YHWH extends lengthy times of probation even to those who are exceedingly wicked in hopes that they may turn back to Him—for example, the Canaanites and all the prophets for Israel (Gen. 15:16). God truly loves His worst enemies and calls us to do likewise.
God’s love is central. So where is the love? Rather than being a sidenote in the Old Testament that is highlighted only in the New Testament, the Old Testament portrays God’s love as better than life (Ps. 63:3). The love of God is deeper than the sea and higher than the sky, extending to all of His creatures (Ps. 36:5–10). Though Israel is the focus in the Old Testament, God loves all people and desires to bless the world and bring them to a knowledge of His love (Gen. 12:3; 22:18). This can be seen through the redemption of many Egyptians, Canaanites, and others. Even more powerfully, the promise of the Messiah, God incarnate, is central in the Torah (Gen. 3:15; 49:8–12; Num. 24:17–19), and is highlighted in other sections of the Old Testament. It was not enough for God to love us while we were yet sinners, but He also promised to come as a human Himself, and die for the curses that we deserved (Isa. 1:53).
As I contemplate these evidences of God’s love in the Old Testament, I cannot help responding with the psalmist, “Oh, give praise to YHWH, for He is good! His khesed love is everlasting!” (Ps. 136:1, my translation).
*For further discussion, see Skip MacCarty, In Granite or Ingrained? What the Old and New Covenants Reveal About the Gospel, the Law, and the Sabbath (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2007).