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God of Love?

חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)—Part 2

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Part 1 defined the meaning of the rich Hebrew word חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), the main term used to describe the love of God. We now turn our attention to answering the accusation that the God of the Old Testament is not a God of love.

Is God “the Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction”?1

These days, ardent secularists view the Judeo-Christian worldview as being harsh and unloving, because the Bible teaches that immoral behavior is wrong and will be punished by God. This is somewhat hypocritical since, according to a logical extrapolation, there is no place for mercy in naturalistic evolution—only the mindless propagation of genes. Of course, atheists might counter-argue that love is indeed compatible with their worldview. But the ironic truth is that their concept of love comes primarily from the fact that mankind was created in the image of a loving God (Genesis 1:26)—it is stamped, to a greater or lesser extent, on every human heart, whether or not a person recognizes its origin.2 Also, the concepts of mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness in many cultures (e.g., Islamic) and sub-cultures (e.g., British atheistic) have been derived directly or indirectly from the teachings of the Old Testament.

If an atheist is honest, he must admit that in natural selection’s “survival of the fittest” love amounts to little more than chemistry. There is not much forgiveness in Darwinian Evolution, and plenty of greed and self-preservation, “red in tooth and claw.”3 And where this philosophy has been applied seriously, not least Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and invalids, it has left a very dark and unpleasant stain on the history of mankind.

Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins made a bitter and scathing attack in The God Delusion, stating, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction” (p. 31).4 Such a perverse assessment is the result of an astonishing degree of willful ignorance and self-deception, but it is popular with some who “will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears . . . will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). Richard Dawkins may preach what many God-haters want to hear about the Bible, but it is certainly not truth.

Foolish Hearts Darkened

Elsewhere Paul describes those who “walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:17–18). He also writes, as if prophetically viewing a growing trend in our contemporary society, of

. . . men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness . . . but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools . . . who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . [T]hey are . . . haters of God . . . unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful. (Romans 1:18, 21–22, 25, 29–31)

Increasingly today, “love” for many involves control and manipulation, seeking maximum self-gratification in return for minimum commitment. It could be argued that this is due, at least in part, to the widespread influence of atheism and naturalistic evolution in public life, particularly in schools. If children are told that there is no God, no ultimate purpose, no universal standard for moral behavior; that they are utterly insignificant, the result of chance chemical interactions on a cosmic stage; that survival of the fittest is the most important factor in the evolution and furtherance of the human race—is it really any wonder that much of society is obsessed with hedonism and violence? This approach to life is the complete opposite of what the Bible teaches about love and its associated humility, mercy, kindness, and faithfulness.

Is God Fair?

Some people may cite the fact that God is “by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7), or that “He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them” (Deuteronomy 7:10), as evidence of His supposed vindictiveness. But His justified treatment of sin can only be understood properly and fairly when taken together in balance with His great love, realizing that He is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6), and that He is “the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9).

Four generations of fallout from sin is hardly an expression of injustice when compared to a thousand generations of faithfulness and mercy for those who love God and obey Him.5 That sounds to me like a benevolent, yet righteous Judge; not an “unforgiving control-freak” or a “capriciously malevolent bully,”6 especially when we consider that the kind of obedience God wants is not blind adherence to a dictator’s petty or self-gratifying edicts, but moral and upright behavior which is the hallmark of civilized and stable societies.

Anyone genuinely seeking the truth will discover that the more you get to know about the God of the Bible, the more you come to understand how important חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) is to Him, along with justice/judgment and righteousness:

“But let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)], judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:247)

God Loves to Love!

It is abundantly clear from both Old and New Testaments that God loves to love! In fact, in one of his New Testament letters John even goes so far as to say that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16)! It follows that all human expressions of genuine love originate from, and take their lead from, His supreme חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ).

In His great love, God does not want any, even the godless and heathen, to perish—a truth expressed in both Old and New Testaments:

“For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord God. “Therefore turn and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32; similarly, Ezekiel 33:11)
The Lord . . . is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)8

This element of His חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) is wonderfully exemplified in His dealings with Nineveh, a place of wickedness and idolatry. Jonah, the famous prophet of Israel, was reluctant to go to this enemy city to warn its citizens of God’s wrath, knowing, unlike Richard Dawkins, that He is “a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)], One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2).

The prophet Micah exclaimed,

Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ]). (Micah 7:18)

Even some Christians adhere to the misconception that the Jesus of the New Testament is completely different from what they perceive as the wrathful God of the Old Testament. But in this study we have seen clearly that the God presented in the Hebrew Scriptures perfectly balances love with justice:

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ]) and truth go before Your face. (Psalm 89:149)

Coming Up Next:

In Part 3 we see the ultimate expression of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Baer, D.A., and R.P. Gordon. 1996. חסד. In New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 2. General ed. W.A. VanGemeren, 211–218. Carlisle, United Kingdom: Paternoster Press.

Brown, F. 1979 (orig. pub. 1907). The New Brown–Driver–Briggs–Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon. With the cooperation of S.R. Driver and C.A. Briggs, 338–339. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Harris, R.L. 1980. חֶסֶד. In Theological Wordbook Of The Old Testament, eds. R.L. Harris, G.L. Archer, and B.K. Waltke. Chicago: Moody Press. Accessed from BibleWorks (Version 7.0.012g, 2006).

Koehler, L., and W. Baumgartner. 2001. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Study Edition, vol. 1 (א–ע), 336–337. Leiden, The Netherlands; Boston, Massachusetts; Köln, Germany: Brill.

Stoebe, H.J. 1997. חֶסֶד ḥéseḏ kindness. In Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (חֶסֶד–צִיּוֹן). Ed. by E. Jenni, and C. Westermann; trans. by M.E. Biddle, 449–464. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Van Pelt, M.V., and G.D. Pratico. 2003. The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Zobel, H.-J. 1986. חֶסֶד ḥéseḏ. In Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 5 (חמר–יהוה). Ed. by G.J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, 44–64. Grand Rapids, Michigan; Cambridge, United Kingdom: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Footnotes

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London, United Kingdom: Bantam Press, 2006). His full rant reads as follows:

    The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (p. 31)
  2. An elderly German lady once told me that Hitler was kind to children. While I found the remark obnoxious and politely but firmly told her that I was upset by her assessment of the most notorious anti-Semitic murderer of the twentieth century, responsible for the inhumane deaths of a million Jewish children, it nevertheless highlights that even the most hateful of characters, including pagans, are capable of some form of respect and kindness (Matthew 5:46–47).
  3. The phrase “red in tooth and claw” comes from Canto 56 of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam (1850), in which he refers to man:

    Who trusted God was love indeed
    And love Creation’s final law
    Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
    With ravine, shriek'd against his creed.
  4. Dawkins, 2006.
  5. Furthermore, even the curse of generational sin can be broken.

    Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13–14)

    Through faith in Christ, the ratio of generational cursing to blessing can be reduced, so to speak, from 4:1000 to 0:1000—such is the magnitude of God’s חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)! So any suggestion of God being unloving, unforgiving, or unfair is exposed as shamefully and utterly foundationless.

  6. Dawkins, 2006.
  7. In the Hebrew Bible this is Jeremiah 9:23.
  8. The NKJV use of the word willing here in 2 Peter 3:9 could potentially be used, out of context, to support universalism, the belief that ultimately everyone will be saved and have a place in heaven. Adherents of this heresy might argue that if it is not God’s will for any to perish, then none shall perish. But the Greek word here translated by the NKJV as “willing,” βούλομαι (boúlomai), can mean “wishing” or “wanting” (as it is translated, for example, by the NASB and NIV respectively) or “desiring.” That this is indeed an authentic meaning of the word is clear, for example, in its use in John 18:39, when Pilate asks the crowd, “Do you therefore want [βούλομαι (boúlomai)] me to release to you the King of the Jews?”

    There is an important distinction between what the Lord desires (i.e., what brings Him pleasure), which may or may not be fulfilled, and what His perfect will determines shall definitely happen. Two examples of His unfulfilled desires shall suffice:

    Now [Jesus] did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:58)
    [Jesus said:] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)

    So also in 2 Peter 3:9, the apostle is telling his readers that God does not want any to perish. That many will nevertheless perish is to an extent self-evident from the fact that He is “longsuffering toward us,” i.e., allowing the maximum opportunity to repent and be saved. Other Scriptures preclude universalism, not least John 3:36:

    He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
  9. In the Hebrew Bible this is Psalm 89:15.

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