Is the loving character of God in Old Testament?
“The Old Testament is all about law and judgment and the New Testament is all about love and grace.”
Or so we’ve been traditionally told.
Yet if the Scriptures tell us that “God is love” and that He never changes, how could this be true? Could we have perhaps misunderstood one of the primary foundations of the Scriptures, the Torah or the Law of Moses?
The confusion begins with our Western understanding of the word “law.” For many, simply mentioning biblical law conjures up thoughts of harsh, unbendable regulations that invite swift punishment when broken. But that is not how the Bible communicates it. In Proverbs 1:8 we find something interesting:
“My son, hear the instruction of your father and do not forsake the law (torah) of your mother.” Proverbs 1:8
The word translated law is the Hebrew word torah – the same word used to describe the “law” of Moses. Do we think of the Law of Moses in the same way as we do our mother’s loving instructions? The Lord does and we should too.
In Hebrew thought, the word torah that is often translated “law” also refers to instructions from a parent or teacher. The implication is that Torah was intended to be God’s caring instructions for every aspect of life and showed Israel the very best way to live.
From beginning to end
The Hebrew language itself suggests this concept of torah as God’s love for His people. Let’s look at the books of the Torah – which are the first five books of our Bible.
The first Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1 is “bereshit” (בְּרֵאשִׁית), which means “in the beginning“. It starts with the letter Bet (בּ). The last word of Deuteronomy is Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), which ends with the letter lamed (ל).
If you join these letters, the very last with the first, they spell the word “lev” (לֵב) – Hebrew word for heart. This can point to the fact how the entirety of the Torah is about God’s heart for mankind.
When we understand this perspective, we see less “judgment” from God and more of His loving discipline of Israel. The idea of discipline is used throughout the Old and New Testament. The Lord is not an angry God ready to destroy things, but a loving Father bringing correction.
Yesterday, today and forever
In Proverbs, it is made clear that God corrects those that He loves and is like a father that disciplines his son in whom He delights and wants to peacefully prosper in life:
“My son, do not forget my teaching (torah), But let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.” Proverbs 3:12
Although we all need correction at times, the meaning of torah demonstrates that God does far more than this in our lives.
When mainstream theology describes God in the Old Testament as “judgmental, harsh, and angry,” we are teaching a foundational distortion of His character and disagreeing with God Himself.
With such confusion, it is no wonder no one gets excited about these books. But look at how God describes Himself to Moses:
“The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:6-7
The God of the Old Testament is compassionate, full of grace, slow to anger, full of love, truth and forgiveness. Nevertheless, He does not ignore disobedience to His word.
This sounds a lot like Jesus
Remember when Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)? It is this same character and heart that is infused in the Torah. Furthermore, Jesus pointed to the Torah as the way to get closer to God. Matthew recorded that the pharisees were looking to trap Jesus in their discussions with Him:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, ” ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40
In other words, they asked: “What is the whole point of the Torah? What is the one thing that we can look to that encompasses everything?”
“Love the Lord your God…” Jesus is saying here that the whole point of the Torah was to fall deeper in love with God, and that was God’s intent for giving instructions to His people. The Pharisees didn’t ask for a second commandment, but He gave it to them anyhow, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responds with two answers that involved everyone and the entire history of Israel.
Old vs. New
If Jesus said the whole point of the Torah and the Prophets was to have us love God with all of our heart, soul and mind, why do many Christians ignore the very thing intended to draw us closer to God? When we brush over the Old Testament, we are ignoring the very thing Jesus said drew us to love God.
When we see the Lord’s proactive desire to be close to His people as expressed through His word, it is hard not to be drawn to Him. This was the God that David knew, as he wrote Psalm 119:
“Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law (Torah).” Psalm 119:18
Do the words “wonderful” and “law” go together in your mind? They did for King David, a man after God’s own heart. If we are praying to have a heart after God, they will go together for us as well.
God is love
David doesn’t stop there – praying to see more wonderful things from God’s Torah – but professed his ongoing love and devotion to God’s instructions for him:
“O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word. I have not turned aside from Your ordinances, For You Yourself have taught me.” Psalm 119:97-102
With this understanding, take the time to reread Psalm 119 out loud. Everywhere you read the word Law, say “God’s loving instructions” instead. As you read, listen to David’s heart and relationship with the Lord and let it stir your own.
God is love. He loves His people. He gave instructions, as a loving Father, for us to walk and live in the very best way possible. It is what the Scriptures are, Old and New, and what Jesus taught. His Word points to a representation of who He is: