Of all the attributes of God, his love is the one most often held up as fully and compellingly expressing who he is. While all the attributes of God are equally important, and while his holiness might also be a strong contender if one had to be singled out, there is no question that the love of God is a fundamental biblical theme.
Hundreds of passages speak to this glorious subject. Throughout Scripture we read again and again of a loving God who manifests his love in countless ways to countless individuals. Simply to list these many passages would take us far beyond what can be covered in a short essay.
Since it is often wrongly assumed that Yahweh is a wrathful God in the Old Testament, while Jesus is a loving God in the New Testament, let me mainly concentrate on some select OT passages. Indeed, these may not be the most familiar passages to many Christians, but they are incredible testimonies to the great love of God as found in the OT.
One passage which should be somewhat familiar is the Second Commandment as found in Exodus 20:4-6 (and Deuteronomy 5:8-10): “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
The contrast offered in verse 6 is especially to be noted. While God will punish successive generations which continue to commit the same sin, his heart is to eternally bless those who follow him. As Douglas Stuart explains, in contrast to the threat of punishment is his real wish:
“to show ‘covenant loyalty’ [NIV ‘love’] to a ‘thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.’ By the greatest numerical contrast in the Bible (three/four to thousands), God identified eloquently his real desire: to have his people remain loyal forever so that he might in turn show them the rich blessings of his resulting loyalty to them.”
Christopher Wright, commenting on the Deuteronomic passage, puts it this way: “Such is the nature of God that God speaks of punishment in terms of living memory and of covenant love in terms of an unimaginable long-distance future. It is a sad distortion that popular caricatures of the OT God get stuck on verse 9b and miss the breathtaking vistas of promise in verse 10.”
Consider also this very moving passage, Isaiah 49:14-16:
But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.”
The powerful image of a loving mother who cannot give up on her own is quite amazing. So much for the cruel heartless Yahweh of the OT! And of course Yahweh had every right to give up on the disobedient, rebellious, hard-hearted and stiff-necked Israel. But he did not.
Alec Motyer is correct when he states, “The word ‘love’ is not used of the Lord in these verses, but they could hardly be more redolent of the reality.” John Oswalt says that “God uses the strongest images of personal attachment to protest that he has not forgotten or forsaken Zion.”
He continues, “Whatever the failures of mothers, God does not forget! God’s attachment is more than a mother’s. The prophet asks us to think of a mother’s attachment and then go one step further. That is what God’s attachment to us is. Much the same point is made in Ps. 27:10: ‘If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up’.”
As to verse 16, Gary Smith comments, “This is not a tattoo on the back of his hand, and it is not something written with weak ink that can fade or be erased; this is permanently carved into his metaphorical flesh.” Or as John Goldingay says: “Her portrait stands on Yahweh’s desk all the time, reminding Yahweh of her brokenness.”
A very similar theme is found in Hosea 11:8-9:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man –
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.”
Even allowing for figures of speech and human language used about God, this is a remarkable passage. James Luther Mays rightly says of it, “Anthropomorphism is Hosea’s stock-in-trade, but the portrait of Yahweh as a father caring for a son achieves as explicit tenderness and detail unmatched in the Old Testament. . . . The emotion and commitment of love is introduced as the basis and power of Yahweh’s way with Israel; and a theme of revelation appears which finds its climax finally in the New Testament.”
Or as Duane Garrett comments, “While accepting the fact that God transcends our metaphors, and that theological doctrines about the impassability and foreknowledge of God should never be jettisoned, texts such as this should be allowed to speak to us in the power of their raw emotion. It is precisely in texts such as this that the love of God becomes a vivid reality and not a barren abstraction.”
Gary Smith more fully explains what this passage is telling us about Yahweh: “God does not want the people he loves to become a mere footnote in world history. No, instead of overturning Israel as he ‘overturned’ Sodom, God’s heart is ‘overturned’ (NIV ‘changed’) because his tender compassion for his people is aroused. What a marvellous expression of divine love and grace for sinful people!”
These are just three of many OT passages which demonstrate the overwhelming love, mercy and tenderness of God. So many more could have been selected here. And of course the New Testament runs with this theme even further, culminating in the supreme act of love at Calvary.
Indeed, Calvary represents the solution to the same problem that Yahweh faced concerning ancient Israel. One the one hand, a holy God cannot condone evil, and must deal with sin; on the other hand, a loving God wishes to offer mercy and provide forgiveness.
Thomas McComiskey nicely ties together the concerns of Hosea with those of the gospel writers concerning this problem: “Hosea does not explain this apparent dilemma theologically. The sublime solution of Christianity set forth in a cross raised on a lonely hill seems to have remained beyond Hosea’s horizon. It is enough to know that the love of God that Hosea depicts in deep emotive terminology was the motivation for the cross. In this way Hosea’s portrayal of divine love spans the centuries.”
To draw this study to a close, consider the words of Leon Morris from his 1981 book, Testaments of Love: “The love of God is a love for the completely undeserving. Using a variety of words and images, the many authors of the Bible emphasize this truth. . . . That love means the cross, for God will do whatever is needed – even make a supreme sacrifice – to save the sinners he loves. . . . God’s love is not simply a beautiful but detached emotion – it is a love that pays the price. The cross is the measure of this love.”