Faith in Focus

THE PATHOS OF GOD - A COVENANTAL PERSPECTIVE - PART 3


So far in this series of articles, we have argued that biblical language which ascribes emotions to God is entirely consistent with the nature of the covenant bond. The fact that God enters into covenant with man means that he is intimately involved with his covenant partner. What we do and the way we respond to Him affects our Lord in a personal way. We are now in a position to discuss some of the divine emotions as they are expressed in Scripture.

 

Lovingkindness

The Hebrew term hesed (lovingkindness) is one of those difficult words to translate because it has a range of connotations. In 1Samuel 20, David says to Jonathan that he should act with lovingkindness towards him because of the covenant bond established between them (vs. 8) and Jonathan, for his part, calls for David to reciprocate, showing lovingkindness not only to him personally, but also to his “house forever” (vss 14,15). Clearly, lovingkindness within the covenant bond means more than a surface affection or infatuation that can come and go. The Hebrew term implies longstanding commitment and faithfulness - the kind of dependability and loyalty that is required in the marriage covenant.

If this is the case, what does it mean that God shows lovingkindness to us in the covenant relationship? How is the dependability, faithfulness, loyalty and commitment of God expressed in Scripture? Of all the prophets, it is Hosea who shows the lengths to which God’s lovingkindness will take him as he confronts a covenant breaking, disloyal people. The prophet himself was instructed to marry a woman given to harlotry “for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord” (Hos. 1:2). Hosea was made to experience the pain of an unfaithful wife so that he could depict in his preaching the way in which God felt towards the 10 northern tribes of Israel, who had departed from him and committed spiritual “adultery” with false gods called the Baals and the Ashtaroth. The second chapter of his prophecy introduces us to a courtroom scene in which God speaks of bringing charges against the 10 northern tribes:

“Contend with your mother, contend, for she is not my wife and I am not her husband. And let her put away her harlotry from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts” (vs. 2)

This is a marriage court in which Yahweh, the aggrieved husband, is laying out the charges against the unfaithful bride and expressing what he will do in consequence of her unfaithfulness. But as the prophecy unfolds, we learn that God has not yet given up on his unfaithful bride. In a remarkable passage, he speaks of wooing her all over again:

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness, and speak kindly to her. Then I will give her her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (vss. 14, 15).

And what will characterise this (re)union between God and His bride? The answer is spelled out in verses 19 and 20:

“And I will betroth you to me forever. Yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion. And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. Then you will know the Lord.”

Ephraim’s turning away from God and casting affection upon other gods is nothing short of treachery and betrayal. But in spite of the intense and prolonged provocation, God’s lovingkindness means that he will not give up on the relationship:

 “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart is turned over within me. All my compassions are kindled. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not destroy Ephraim again. For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (11:8-9).

Here the imagery is that of a father and his intense love for his son. Admah and Zeboiim are cities that are listed along with Sodom and Gomorrah as having been overthrown by God in his anger (Deut. 29:23). Clearly, Ephraim is just as guilty as those cities. But here we have Yahweh suppressing His own legal rights in favour of continuing the relationship. The series of rhetorical questions in verse 8 expresses not only the anguish of God that Ephraim has deserted Him, but at the same time also, His refusal to carry out His covenant wrath. It is the hesed of God in relation to His covenant people that “wins out” and provides a resolution to His “dilemma”.

This is not to say that God’s wrath is never expressed in the covenant relationship. It is, and we will consider that in a moment. But the point that Hosea makes is that God never functions as a cool, distant, uncaring parent or husband. The covenant bond means that He feels intensely for His people and will go to astounding lengths to restore the relationship when it is broken. We should remember this when we are dealing with young people who have grown up in the covenant relationship but have at this point departed from God. Hosea persistently appealed to his own countrymen in the strongest of terms.

 

Wrath

Sometimes the wrath of God is seen as diametrically opposed to His love. How can God be a God of love and of wrath at the same time? Does He have a split personality? Actually, these are not opposites at all, but rather, two sides of the same coin. God is slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness (cf. Exodus 34:6, Psalm 103:8), but within the covenant bond, God’s wrath is aroused precisely because He is involved and not neutral or dispassionately removed from His people. The opposite of love is not wrath; rather, the opposite of both is apathy, disinterest, distance, neutrality.

When God’s wrath fell upon Judah during the period of the Babylonian Captivity, its purpose was not only to express the just judgement of God, but also to draw His people back into covenant relationship with Him. Thus, in a passage which sets forth God’s intention to restore His people and have compassion on them, rebuilding the ruined city of Jerusalem (Jer. 30:18ff), we have the following:

 

Behold the tempest Of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a sweeping tempest; it will burst on the head of the wicked. The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back, until he has performed, and until he has accomplished the intent of his heart; in the latter days you will understand this. “At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.” (30:23,24; 31:1).

Again, in this covenant context God’s anger has a specific intent - to make His covenant partner realise that he has forsaken the Lord and bring about a restoration to the relationship. It is precisely for this reason that the most powerful presenters of God’s wrath in the Old Testament, Jeremiah and Hosea, are also the most powerful presenters of his love.

We should remember this when we are tempted to become permissive in the exercise of discipline. Is it loving when a church exercises disincline against its members, or when parents discipline a teenager who is rebellious? Yes indeed! God disciplines those whom He loves (cf. Heb. 12:6) precisely because He loves them and for no other reason. It would be a lack of love - apathy, an attitude that couldn’t care less - that would withdraw and allow rebellious behaviour to continue. But remember too that the object of discipline is to restore the erring church member or child, never to drive them away or distance them indefinitely. Removing someone’s name from the church roll does not mean that we can forget all about them. God most certainly does not forget and neither should we.

There are other emotions of God that we could consider but space permits only one more in this article, the quality of jealousy.

 

Jealousy

Sometimes this quality is misunderstood because when we use the term “jealousy”, we frequently mean “envy”. So-and-so is jealous of another’s achievements, means that he or she is envious and would very much like to have achieved this for himself. Of course, God is never jealous in that sense. He has no reason to envy anybody anything since He is absolute and all-glorious. In Scripture the term jealous, when applied to God, means that He cares very much for His people and will be moved to act when anything threatens the relationship that He enjoys with them. When a husband is jealous for his wife, it means that he values the relationship so highly that he will be intensely aroused if another man tries to take his wife from him. So it is with God in the covenant bond that He has with us. In fact, the Scripture does not hesitate to declare that God’s very name is Jealous (Ex. 34:14). This statement is unique to the Bible. None of the other religions that Israel knew spoke of the gods as being jealous in this sense.

Perhaps even more graphically than Hosea, Ezekiel expresses this concept in relation to unfaithful Jerusalem, which is characterised in chapter 16 of his prophecy as a young woman whom God married when she was ready:

“Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread my skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became mine,” declares the Lord God (vs. 8).

As the dramatic picture unfolds, Yahweh sets forth the unfaithfulness of His bride, which in turn arouses His wrath and jealousy:

“So I shall calm my fury against you, and my jealousy will depart from you, and I shall be pacified and angry no more. Because you have not remembered the days of your youth but have enraged me by all these things, behold, I in turn will bring your conduct down on your own head,” declares the Lord God, “so that you will not commit this lewdness on top of all your other abominations” (vss. 42, 43).

But yet again, the passage ends with a promise of the restoration of the covenant relationship in verses 60-63. As an interesting postscript, the prophet returns to the theme of Yahweh’s jealousy in chapter 39. Here the express motivation for God’s restoration of His people is His jealousy - jealousy for His own Name in the sight of the nations:

Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Now I shall restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I shall be jealous for my holy name. And they shall forget their disgrace and their treachery which they perpetrated against me, when they live securely on their own land with no one to make them afraid. When I bring them back from the lands of their enemies, then I shall be sanctified through them in the sight of the many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God because I made them go into exile among the nations, and then gathered them again to their own land; and I will leave none of them there any longer” (vss. 25-28).

Here again, the jealousy of God becomes linked to His covenant love and His faithfulness. It is more than a category of abstract and dispassionate justice since it moves beyond judgement to mercy and salvation. And significantly, it is God’s jealousy for his covenant name, Yahweh, and the way that Name will be spoken of among the nations, that moves Him to restore the covenant bond.

 

Conclusion

The Bible does not hesitate to speak of God’s intense involvement with His people in the language of emotion. When God enters into covenant with us, He is not cold and distant. On the contrary, He feels for us and is affected by the way we treat Him. But the covenant relationship is two sided. God’s faithfulness and love towards us require a reciprocal faithfulness towards Him. To break the covenant relationship is nothing short of treachery and betrayal. Because God cares for His covenant people so deeply, this will inevitably arouse His wrath, but this is for the purpose of winning His erring people back and restoring the covenant bond.

In the next article we will consider the issue of election and reprobation in covenantal perspective.

 

Dr Michael Flinn is the Minister of the Reformed Church of Dovedale-Bishopdale

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised July 2000 / Copyright 2000