Chapter 2: Love in the Biblical Tradition: The Hebrew Faith

The Spirit and the Forms of Love
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 2: Love in the Biblical Tradition: The Hebrew Faith

The biblical faith has given rise to more than one understanding of God’s love and its relationship to our human loves. The meaning of love in the scripture is nothing other than the meaning of the history of God’s dealing with man. It is the mystery of the divine being. In the Bible the relation of God’s love to human loves is made explicit only in part and is never given a systematic statement. All interpretations of the biblical faith, therefore, are attempts to grasp the meaning of a love which is inexhaustible. It is not the case then that we have one normative concept in the scripture for which everything in later Christian thought represents either a variation or a misunderstanding. We shall see that there have been at least three major interpretations of the love of God in the history of Christian thought. Each has its integrity, its specific human expressions, and its grounding in the scriptural witness to God’s actions which disclose his love. In a later chapter we shall be describing these three types. But our first task is to look at the biblical sources and at the result of the meeting of Christianity with Greek religion and philosophy in order to understand the formative conceptions of love we have inherited.

The encounter of Christian faith with classical culture is the crux of the development of the main structure of Christian theology. The attitude we take toward that encounter will depend both upon our view of the biblical faith and our understanding of the Greek metaphysical outlook.

In the New Testament the Christian message found expression in language and thought forms taken in part from the Hellenistic world. The Fourth Gospel uses the Logos concept to speak of God and of Christ. Whatever the writer intended by it, that word would be heard by a Greek as involving the philosopher’s conception of the intelligible structure of the world. The apostle Paul used religious symbols familiar in the world of Greek religion. This continued in the theology of the Church Fathers as they sought to appropriate for Christian faith the ways of speaking about God they found in Greek philosophy. Thus the main structure of Christian theology as it became formulated in the creeds of the Church reflects this process in which the biblical faith in God became fused with the neo-platonic doctrine of God as absolute being. We are today still trying to assess what really happened in the first centuries of Christian thought. It is a complex history, but broadly speaking two main attitudes are taken toward it.1

One position is that the main lines of Christian doctrine were laid down in the ecumenical creeds and the patristic theologies. They are the established foundation of all Christian thought. The other view, increasingly emphasized, as theology has become critical of the tradition, is that the fusing of Christian faith with Greek metaphysics was, if not a disaster, a wrong turn from which theology has yet to recover. There must be either a purging of Christian theology of all metaphysics, or we need a new metaphysical vision which embodies the conception of God as living, creative and responsive to his world.

The view we take will have important consequences for the understanding of love. For the classical tradition St. Augustine is the supreme doctor of love. It was he who worked out the synthesis of the platonic doctrine of being with the redemptive action of God in Christ. He brought ethics, metaphysics, and theology into a dynamic unity, and showed how the Christian understanding of God both completes and transcends the Greek doctrines. Christian faith satisfies the Greek craving for intelligibility and the mystical craving for communion with the divine. The critics of St. Augustine hold that the distinctive love of the Gospel is obscured in his theology. Bishop Nygren has stated the case in his Agape and Eros. According to Nygren, Augustine knows the distinctive theme of agape as disclosed in Christ, but corrupts it by synthesizing it with the Greek Eros. It was necessary for the reformers, especially Luther, to recover the biblical understanding. They had to find an alternative to metaphysical structure to relate the agape of God to the human loves and their requirements.2

I shall try to show that the wise move for theology today is not to try to prove one of these views right and the other wrong, but to ask whether we can get a clearer perspective on the historical development of the doctrine of love. We can be helped in such a task if we adopt the presupposition that the understanding of the meaning of love in the Christian faith has a history. Love is spirit and the spirit shapes the forms in which it is conceived. It can plough up old forms and create new ones. We shall look at the biblical tradition and what happened to it in the first centuries as a disclosure of new facets of the meaning of love in concrete historical development. We may then be in a position to reconceive the meaning of love in the light of this development.

The view taken in this book is that the biblical witness to the meaning of the love of God must be reassessed in our time as it has been in other times. Christian theology has too often tried to grasp the meaning of love through one set of concepts, taken to be the only valid ones, whereas it may be that the truth lies in the history of developing concepts. The spirit takes form in history, and because love is spirit its capacity to take a variety of forms should be the first consideration in our attempt to understand it. We certainly know that human loves have a development, and have taken many forms in their self-expression. I propose that this is true of the divine love. We cannot grasp God’s love under a single form. History exhibits the creativity of God’s freedom and of man’s freedom. If it is the very nature of love to seek expression in relation to the need of the other, then the unity of love must be found in the spirit’s intention, not in any one form of its expression. Because this aspect of our knowledge of God has not been given its due place, the significance of love in relation to creativity, to suffering, to forgiveness, and to fulfillment in communion has been obscured.

To justify such an understanding we must first re-examine the main themes of love in the Bible.


The Hebrew people knew the love of God as the constitutive character of his relation to his people, his faithfulness to them in the midst of their wandering and suffering. While the Hebrew scripture uses various words for love, as we do in English, for attraction or desire or caring for any object or person, the central meaning of God’s love is that he has chosen to make this one people his own, and this choice is an act of his love. Once the covenant is established, God’s care for and faithfulness to his erring people is his chesed, his loving-kindness (A.V.), his steadfast love (R.S.V.), or his mercy, as the Septuagint translates chesed into the Greek eleos.3

The terms ‘election-love’ and ‘covenant-love’ are used by Norman Snaith to distinguish the two aspects of God’s relationship to Israel. Snaith finds the first expressed in the verb ‘ahebh, and the second in chesed. It is ‘ahebh which is used for many kinds of love, love for things, and for other persons, and it can be used for man’s love of God as well as God’s love of man. Chesed in contrast always implies a covenant. It can be used for the faithfulness which is required between man and man as in the making of the blood-brotherhood between David and Jonathan (I Samuel 20: 14-16). They pledge to each other the chesed of Jehovah, and David is not to withhold his chesed from Jonathan’s house for ever.4

Before analysing the special aspects of the meaning of God’s love with the help of this distinction, we see already that we have the fundamental example of the way in which for the Hebrews the love of God is disclosed through his actions. What love does, its concrete mode of expression, is always related to the actual history of God’s relationships to men. Love as election is the act of choosing, of singling out and establishing a new relationship. Love shows its obligation and its character by the way the lover acts toward the other in the covenant. Thus, caring for the other becomes patience with his infirmities, and protection of the other may become resistance to his wrongdoing. These themes are expressed in three aspects of the Hebraic conception of the love of God.

First, the relationship between God and his people is described in concrete personal terms and is expressed in the language of love between father and son, and between husband and bride. Just here appears one of the most remarkable aspects of the entire treatment of love in the Bible. It is this: the metaphors and expressions of human love between father and son and between husband and bride are fundamental in the speech about the love of God, and yet never are the erotic aspects and the emotional satisfactions of human love asserted to be the key to the relationship of man and God. The Bible does not reject the language of human emotion or even of passion for the divine love, yet it never makes the ecstatic or emotional fullfilment of familial or sexual experience the key to the experience of God. It is as if from the beginnings of the Hebraic faith human passion was always taken up into a fully personalized relationship where feeling, emotional desire and fullfilment were not rejected, but where their meaning was found in a personal order which absorbed them into a larger pattern of devotion and loyalty.

The love between God and his people is given and received on both sides. It is commanded to be returned, as in the commandment, ‘thou shalt love the Lord thy God’, and it has been returned in Israel’s history. This is the view of the prophets.

Jeremiah, like other prophets, regarded the time in the wilderness as a time of purity and loyalty in the life of Israel:

Thus says the Lord:

I remember the devotion of your youth

Your love as a bride,

How you followed me in the wilderness,

In a land not sown. (Jeremiah 2:2)

Here the image and metaphor of husband and bride is applied to the relationship of God and the people, not individuals. But Jeremiah also speaks of God’s call to him and his ‘wooing’ him to become a prophet in the concrete images of personal love. God has overpowered him:

O Lord, Thou hast seduced me,

And I am seduced;

Thou hast raped me

And I am overcome. (Jeremiah 20:7)

Dr. Abraham Heschel helps us to enter into the concreteness of this language.5 He says, ‘Jeremiah also knew the bliss of being engaged to God, "the joy and delight" of being, as it were, a bride’.

Thy words were found and I ate them,

Thy words became to me a joy,

The delight of my heart,

For I am called by thy name,

O Lord, God of hosts. (Jeremiah 15:16)

The question comes as to what love can do with failures and unfaithfulness. Isaiah puts his description of what has happened in the history of Israel in the form of a love song to Yahweh’s beloved:

Let me sing for my beloved

a love song concerning his vineyard:

My beloved had a vineyard

on a very fertile hill.

He digged it and cleared it of stones,

and planted it with choice vines:

He built a watchtower in the midst of it,

and hewed out a wine vat in it

And he looked for it to yield grapes,

but it yielded wild grapes. (Isaiah 5:1-2)

This prophetic wrestling with the problem of Israel’s sin is concerned with the question, what can God in his love do with an unloving and wandering people? The language of human faithfulness and unfaithfulness is constantly used to describe the personal history in which God and his people are involved. Hosea uses the metaphor of harlotry to describe Israel’s defection from Yahweh’s love.

In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing.

Ephraim’s harlotry is there, Israel is defiled. (Hosea 6:10)

It is love, chesed, faithfulness and not sacrifice which Yahweh requires, but Israel’s love is like the morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away (Hosea 6: 4). The classic eleventh chapter of Hosea penetrates to the ultimate problem of love as it is known in the Hebraic faith. It describes God’s tender love for his people as he took them up in his arms and led them with the bands of love, easing their yoke. But the yoke will be restored because they have turned away, and Assyria will be their king. Now the crucial passage occurs in which God agonizes within himself. ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim, and how can I hand you over, O Judah. . . My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim’ (Hosea 11: 8).

No more concrete description of an inner conflict between love for another and the righteous indignation which judges the other could be given than this. Does it mean that God has two sides to his being? Some theology, notably Luther’s, has come close to asserting that there is a conflict within God and love must contend with and overcome wrath. This question of the relation of love to judgment and punishment is one of the profoundest in all the discussion of love, and it will occupy us many times. Here we need to consider how the matter stands in the Hebraic faith.

It is not uncommon to find those who stand outside the Hebrew faith characterizing the God of the Old Testament as one whose nature is essentially that of the righteous law-giver who demands conformity to his law. The possibility of mercy is therefore a problem for God. Judgment is fundamental, mercy only a new and disturbing possibility. But this surely is a wrongheaded view of the Hebrew faith. God’s love and mercy, his care and compassion, are the very foundation of his covenant with Israel. His wrath is the reaction of the righteous God to the unfaithfulness of his people. Much has been made of the ‘unmotivated’ character of God’s love in the election of Israel. Whether that is the correct word is debatable; but what is clear is that his wrath and punishment are never unmotivated. They are occasioned by the people’s violation of their obligations to God. The language does become vindictive and exaggerated, it is true; but it is the exaggeration of a righteous indignation. What calls forth God’s wrath is the violation of the covenant of love which he has established. That is the fundamental connection between love and judgment.

It should also be remembered that God’s judgment falls upon those outside the covenant, as in the prophecies of Amos, where many nations are punished for violations of the moral requirements of human decencies. For example, the charge against Edom is precisely that he ‘pursued his brother with the sword, and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually and he kept his wrath forever’ (Amos 1:11). Here in the words of the prophet who is usually associated with the message of divine wrath, the charge against the nations is that they have not honoured the basic requirements of ethical brotherhood and community. This is a clear case where the Hebraic faith strains against the bonds of a narrow interpretation of election.

Love and wrath then are woven together in the divine character as constituents of God’s righteousness, that is the order which God wills and which he works out in history. That righteous order includes the divine care for the weak. The place to look for the meaning of love is in the history of a people who have been called into an intimate, personal relationship with God, and who have begun to learn the meaning of responsibility and the consequences of irresponsibility in that relationship.

So far, then, the love of God is known as his concern, his devoted care, his willingness to share in the life of a particular people to set them free and to deal with them graciously in their desires and passions, health and sickness, worship and pleasure, warfare and peace, life and death.6


We have seen how the language of human loves in friendship, in marriage, and in the forms of human passion has entered into the Hebraic speech about God. The relation of God’s love to the human loves requires interpretation. It is not obvious, for God is God and not man. There is, for example, no simple and clear relationship between Yahweh’s claim to complete worship from Israel and the Hebrew view of marriage. There is no strict monogamy in Israel until very late in the pre-Christian period, as David R. Mace has shown in his Hebrew Marriage.7 This makes it all the more remarkable that the faithfulness of husband and bride becomes such a compelling image for the covenant between God and his people. It is as if the theological sense of the meaning of married love ran ahead of the social practice.

The great poem of sexual love, the Song of Songs, is a celebration of love in profoundly emotional and ecstatic terms, but it is not a religious poem, and makes no claim to throw light upon the relation of man’s love and God’s love. It is now clearly agreed that any esoteric theological significance read into the poem by allegorizing theologians and mystics has no basis in the book itself. Its inclusion in the canon, whatever the original motive, shows that sexual love is accepted as natural and good. There is no asceticism in the Hebrew mind with respect to natural human loves. What God requires is love to him, that is faithfulness within the covenant, and obedience to the moral requirements which God has established as the laws of the covenant.

These moral requirements include love to the neighbour. This love is commanded as obedience to the will of God, and is supported by the memory of God’s love for Israel. The decisive statements come, curiously, in the book of Leviticus with its conglomeration of primitive and sophisticated morality, its elements of vengeance and its crudities. But it rises to this height:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart,

but you shall reason with your neighbour,

lest you bear sin because of him.

You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge

against the sins of your own people,

but you shall love your neighbour as yourself;

I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

This love is not restricted to one’s people. ‘The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19: 34).

We have not reached here the prophetic conception of a universal requirement of love to men, and the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ will still be asked at a crucial juncture in the history of the ethics of love. But throughout the development of the Hebrew faith love as a concerned generous spirit toward the other was understood as a fundamental element in God’s requirement of faithfulness to the covenant.

The prophetic and priestly interpreters avoid the systematizing of a doctrine of love. It is as if they assume the meaning of love for the neighbour and the source of this assumption is God’s care and faithfulness to his people. To love is to seek the other’s good, to give another the consideration and understanding one gives to one’s self. It is avoidance of hate and destructive anger. It is personal expression of concern. Every human love belongs to the wholeness of life which God wills, and man’s achievement or failure is judged in the light of the divine righteousness. But the various forms and expressions of human love are appropriate within specific conditions of life, its needs, its passions, and its values and limitations. Thus the Hebraic religion never commands particular forms of emotional experience either in worship or in sexual love. Neither does it become ascetic. We can see beginning here what might be called the ‘secularizing’ of life, not in the sense of separating the spheres of human action from the divine command, but of asserting the unity of all life within the order which God intends for it with no separation of ‘sacred’ from ‘secular’ experience. Perhaps here the secret of Israel’s ethic lies, in the capacity to accept the natural requirements of human existence in man’s creaturely state, and thus to keep every part of life ordered within man’s single responsibility to the Lord and giver of life. Certainly this is the direction in which the prophetic ethic moves. Martin Buber puts the point powerfully:

The world is not something which must be overcome. It is created reality, but reality created to be hallowed. Everything created has a need to be hallowed and is capable of receiving it: all created corporeality, all created urges and elemental forces of the body. Hallowing enables the body to fulfil the meaning for which it was created.8

In consequence, human love is understood in its goodness within the intent of creation, but no human expression of love is to be deified. It is the Hebraic insight which embodies the truth later found in Plutarch’s aphorism, ‘The passions are not gods and the gods are not passions.’


We have now to observe that the Hebrew scripture leaves us with two major perplexities about the love of God. The first stems from the meaning of election and what this implies for the conception of God as the loving father of all. The second has to do with redemption. It is the question of how the loving God can and will deal with the sins of his people, and the meaning of God’s suffering in redemption. We need to formulate these questions as sharply as possible, for they underlie the situation in which the New Testament faith speaks of the decisive disclosure of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

The knowledge of the love of God which Israel professes is bound up with election. ‘You only have I known of all the nations of the earth.’ (Amos 3: 2a.) The verb ‘know’ here is the intimate verb which is used for sexual love. Israel knows the love of God only through the covenant. This is the clear implication of most of the Old Testament. Where, then, does it leave us with God’s relation to everyman? Does God love some and not others? This question produces an ultimate tension in the Hebraic faith. Norman Snaith says:

Either we must accept this idea of choice on the part of God with its necessary accompaniment of exclusiveness, or we have to hold to a doctrine of the love of God other than that which is biblical.9

While this is true to the Old Testament way of thinking with its roots in the experience of Israel as the people of God, it also raises the deepest issue in the faith of that people, and the failure to see this can leave our view of the biblical witness in intolerable confusion. The problem is whether the God of Israel is the same loving, caring God in his dealing with all of his creation and with all nations? Snaith does not even raise that question, which is curious in one seeking to expound the logic of Israel’s faith. For if God is faithful is he less faithful to other people than to this one?

H. Richard Niebuhr says, ‘It does seem clear from any study of the Hebrew Scriptures that the history of Israel is marked by an almost continuous struggle between social henotheism and radical monotheism.’10 Now radical monotheism is impossible unless the God to whom the people is covenanted is the one God who deserves and requires the loyalty of all creatures. Richard Niebuhr believes this principle was coming to recognition in the word which God speaks in Exodus, ‘I am the I am,’ and he agrees with Gilson and all catholic theology which has understood this text to say that, ‘God is nothing less than being, and being is God, namely valuer and savior’.11 Niebuhr quite rightly does not want to speak of this biblical statement as metaphysical, but it is clearly out of this conviction that the One God is the lord of all being that a doctrine of God’s being in any way congruent with the biblical faith must come.

The implicit logic of the trust in God which Israel knows leads to God’s universal concern expressed in the doctrine of creation. Here we must criticize the tendency in contemporary theology to discount the significance of the doctrine of creation for Israel. Karl Barth treats the theme of God’s self-revelation in the creation as a ‘side-line’ in the Old Testament.12 In Barth’s view the fundamental theme is the covenant with Israel, and this is later read back into a doctrine of creation.13

Gerhard von Rad supports Barth’s view in his commentary on the creation narrative in Genesis:

The position of the creation story at the beginning of our Bible has often led to misunderstanding, as though the ‘doctrine’ of creation were a central subject of Old Testament faith. That is not the case. Neither here, nor in Deutero-Isaiah is the witness to creation given for its own sake. Faith in creation is neither the position nor the goal of the declarations in Genesis, chs. 1 and 2. Rather, the position of both the Yahwist and the Priestly document is basically faith in salvation and election They undergird this faith by the testimony that this Yahweh who made a covenant with Abraham and at Sinai, is also the creator of the world.14

But von Rad does not ask how this assertion that God is creator does undergird the faith in salvation, indeed is absolutely essential to it. If Yahweh is not in control of the heavens and the earth, he cannot be the saving God. If there really are other gods, the claim for absolute trust in Yahweh breaks down. The doctrine of creation is essential to the relationship which Israel has with him. That surely is the implicit logic of the Old Testament. We should not forget that the men of the Old Testament were human beings with the same interest and concern about origins that men have shown in every culture. The final form of the creation narrative is late, but it shows quite clearly its rootage in mythological and primitive histories which gave form to the primordial intuitions of men reflecting upon their origin. The attempt of Barth and von Rad to relegate these elements to a position of unimportance is strained and unconvincing. It reflects the bias of contemporary theologies which have felt it necessary to try to show that Israel’s faith had nothing in common with any other ancient outlook.

Israel’s mature faith is clear about who Yahweh is: he is the creator of the world and every man. The story of Israel is set within the story of mankind, and both the care of God and the sin of man are known not only in Israel, but also as the ground theme of the whole human venture. The problem posed for the meaning of the love of God is, ‘If the love of God is known in the election of Israel, what does it mean for God’s dealing with the whole of mankind?’ Has God created the world in love? Perhaps there is nothing in the Hebrew scripture which explicitly identifies God’s act of creation as an act of love. Yet the creation of man in the divine image has the implicit undertone of God’s recognition of the creation as good and of man as his handiwork. Universalistic passages which suggest that God’s care for all nations is of the same character as that for Israel do occur as in Amos 9: 7, Ruth, Isaiah 19: 19-25,42:1-6, and 49:6. This theme is also beautifully reflected in a Talmudic story. When the Egyptians are drowning at the Red Sea the angels want to sing, and God rebukes them: ‘My handiwork is dying, and you wish to sing?’ 15

Of course there is one answer to the question of the relation of God’s love for Israel to the other nations which appears formally satisfying. Through his elect people God will bless all. Whether this hope was put in form of imperialistic domination of the nations by Israel (Isaiah 60-1) or in more universalistic terms, it did serve to hold together the doctrine of election with the integrity of the divine character. In Abraham all generations of the earth should be blessed. But when we ask how this universal blessing is to come through Israel, we raise again the question of the place of love in redemption. In what sense does the hope for salvation rest upon the love of God? This question involves the complex and fascinating development of Israel’s hope from the days of the exile and restoration to the time of Jesus with the rise of apocalyptic eschatologies and the messianic expectation. That God will right the world and fulfil his purpose in history is the constant theme. ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ are the perennial questions.

We find two contrasting tendencies in the development of Israel’s salvation faith. They are interwoven themes and they cannot be neatly disentangled. By analysing them we may define the issues concerning love which concern us as we approach the New Testament doctrine.

One tendency is to interpret the redemptive action of God primarily in terms of the divine power. It is not a question of love, or of dealing with the wrongdoer as one who must be won back. It is the sheer assertion of the divine majesty in an act which restores the whole earth to its rightful obedience to the divine order. The prophetic faith looks forward to such an act of God, and it is not always asserted as a consequence of the divine love, or a necessary implication of what God has done in the past, but as the sheer fiat of the divine sovereignty in which the righteous God will do what he will do.

This expectation of the fulfilment of God’s righteous purpose is the source of Israel’s messianic hope. The messianic expectation has a complex history. The word messiah, God’s ‘anointed one’, is used in the Old Testament for kings who rule through God’s will and favour. There probably is no use of the word ‘messiah’ in the Old Testament to refer to a future messenger of God who will fulfil God’s redemptive purpose. It is only gradually that the eschatological perspective becomes the significant content of the messianic prophecies. With the development of the apocalyptic pictures of the world’s end in the period between the testaments, as in the book of Enoch and the Psalms of Solomon, the messianic hope is identified with the coming of the supernatural ‘Son of Man’ in a cosmic cataclysm which will bring God’s reign as it ends history.16

These differences between the original forms of messianic hope and its later development are vital for understanding Israel’s faith and for the New Testament assertion that Jesus is the Messiah. But our analysis here is focused on a single point, the meaning of the love of God for redemption. It is clear that in the Old Testament the messianic figure brings salvation through the will and power of God to create a righteous order. He is never a suffering messiah in these visions. He is the effective agent of the divine power, fulfilling righteousness in history.

When this side of God’s majesty is stressed, his power to save as he will, the perplexity is why God stays his omnipotent arm and does not act now. It is not an issue about the nature of God’s love or its mode of working; but only the question, ‘Why does he not do what his almighty power makes it possible for him to do?’ and stop the perversion of justice. Habakkuk stands and waits, in faith, for salvation will surely come because God is just. In the book of Job the only answer which comes to the individual sufferer is God’s assertion of his omnipotent power to create and to rule. Job is awed to silence, not by divine love, but by God’s absolute power.

But alongside this power motif there is another theme more hidden and indirect, yet more profound. It is the theme of the salvation of God as a renewal of the marriage bond between God and Israel. This renewal is an expression of the faithful and forgiving love in which God has created the original covenant. Deutero-Isaiah makes use of the theme of the bride taken back by her husband with everlasting mercy.

For your maker is your husband,

the Lord of hosts is his name;

And the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,

the God of the whole earth he is called.

For the Lord has called you

like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,

like a wife of youth when she is cast off,

says your God.

For a brief moment I forsook you,

but with great compassion I will gather you.

In overflowing wrath for a moment

I hid my face from you,

but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,

says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:5-8)

Similarly Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant expresses God’s power to create a new situation and to raise up a new and righteous people, but this requires a transformation of the heart (spirit) of men, and Jeremiah seems here close to envisioning a redemption of individuals rather than the people as a whole.

We see here, then, salvation depending upon the divine mercy which is the forgiveness and faithfulness of God and his care for his people. It is, therefore, an expression of the same love which Israel has known from the beginning of the marriage (covenant) relationship. But a new question appears. If God loves this erring people then does not the restoration and forgiveness involve the suffering which is a consequence of sin and the suffering of God who yearns for his people’s redemption? If salvation is costly for a loving God does the suffering enter into the work of salvation? This problem of the divine suffering is of critical importance for a doctrine of love rooted in the biblical faith.

The general tendency of interpretation of the Hebraic faith seems against the idea that God suffers. He is ‘long-suffering’ indeed. That is, he is patient, and he withholds his righteous wrath. He yearns for and broods over his people. But God, the omnipotent Lord, does not suffer in the sense that he is hurt or shaken, or moved in his being by the action of men. The Old Testament is indeed reticent on this point. The passages which come close to suggesting the divine suffering such as Hosea’s picture of God agonizing within himself over his beloved people are sometimes treated as too anthropomorphic to be taken with ultimate seriousness as they suggest that God can be in difficulty with his world.

It is usually held that the messianic expectation does not change this dominant picture. The messianic ruler of Isaiah 11 is just and compassionate; but he rules in the power of the Spirit. Through him God’s righteousness becomes effectual in all the earth:

with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. (Isaiah 11:4)

The messiah of God in the earlier apocalypses, for example in Enoch, does not suffer. It may be argued that pre-Christian Judaism never asserted a suffering messiah. The suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah is in all probability not a messianic figure, however the servant is to be interpreted.

Yet two factors combine to make us look more closely at the theme of suffering love in the Hebrew faith. One is the result of researches in Hellenistic Judaism, the results of which have been critically appraised by W. D. Davies in his Paul and Rabbinic Judaism. The other is the putting of the question about God’s suffering in a new way, which is free of some of the rigid presuppositions about the being of God which have shaped later theology. This possibility is given a compelling statement by Abraham Heschel in his study, The Prophets, to which we shall turn in a moment.

It is at least possible that there was a conception of a suffering messiah in pre-Christian Judaism, so W. D. Davies holds.17 He reminds us that there was the poignant awareness of the suffering of the prophets, and that their suffering was in many instances a constituent element in their witness. There is the classic example of Jeremiah’s rebellion against the divine call. The Son of Man in Daniel, a pre-messianic figure, suffers. The Teacher of Righteousness in the Qumran community appears as a prototype of the leader killed by wicked men, the martyr who leaves a sacred and saving memory for the community.18

Certainly by the second century A.D. the figure of a suffering messiah was a familiar theme in Jewish teaching. Davies suggests that the element of offence in the Christian proclamation may have been, not the suffering or even the death of Jesus, but the shameful manner of the death.

The Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah is usually taken as the most important anticipation in the Old Testament of the later doctrine of redemption through the vicarious sacrifice of God’s man who bears the penalty of all man’s sin. It is now argued by many New Testament scholars that Jesus himself did not identify himself with the Suffering Servant. However, Paul and later Christianity certainly did make the identification. It is tempting to find here the deepest link between the Old Testament and the New in the understanding of how God redeems the world.

The problem here is one of the most fascinating and, so far, unresolved, of all the questions about the Old Testament faith. Who is the Servant, and whom does he represent? Whoever he is, there is certainly a conception of vicarious sacrifice obliterating a penalty. ‘Thou hast laid on him the iniquity of us all, and by his stripes we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53: 5-6.) We know something about the historical development of this conception. The notion of the vicarious suffering of the King who atones for the sin of the people is a cardinal item in the ideology of sacral kingship all over the ancient Near East.20 But the connection of this politico-religious imagery with the Servant Songs of the Old Testament is still obscure. Dr. James Muilenburg suggests that the Hebrew poet-prophet may have taken over a form of Akkadian liturgical speech in order to express his own vision.21 We seem to be dealing with a conception which trembles on the verge of clarity but which remains obscure and in which the precise identification of the Servant cannot be made. It is as if the spirit of love is giving birth to a new form but is still in labour. In any case, if we ask, ‘Is the suffering of the Servant the suffering of God?’ we are not given an unequivocal answer in the text unless we read Isaiah 63: 9 in this way, ‘in all their affliction he was afflicted,’ but it is not certain what the text means. The Revised Standard Version translators, for example, read it: ‘In all their affliction he did not afflict.’ James Muilenburg thinks it possible that the affliction of the Servant is understood as being also the affliction of God.22

We are left, then, with a question about the understanding of God’s love. Does divine love become suffering love in order to deal with the waywardness and suffering of the world? Does God’s suffering become the way of his redemption of his people? Dr. Abraham Heschel, to whose book, The Prophets, we have referred, has given a radical and profound answer to this question. He suggests that we should remember as we read the prophets that they had a certain reticence about expressing the divine suffering directly. A sense of delicacy before the Holy prevented them from making it too explicit, and later rabbinic commentators sensed this.23 For Heschel the divine pathos means God’s involvement in history. It is the result of his personal participation in the life of his free and irresponsible people:

Pathos, then, is not an attitude taken arbitrarily. Its inner law is the moral law; ethos is inherent in pathos. God is concerned about the world, and shares in its fate. Indeed this is the essence of God’s moral nature: His willingness to be intimately involved in the history of man.24

We must realize that the Bible has strata of meaning which lie beneath the surface. Penetration to them is difficult, and we can never claim that we are grasping the ultimate themes. Yet some such conclusion as follows about the Hebraic witness to the love of God is necessary if we are to put the New Testament interpretation in its proper context.

In the Hebrew scripture God is known by Israel as the loving God who reveals himself in his actions toward the people with whom he has bound himself in a personal community of loving concern. His love takes on new expressions with the waywardness of his people. It becomes compassion, patience, a mourning for one who has turned away and the longing for his return. It takes form as merciful concern and the will to restoration of the familial bond. In consequence, man’s concern for the other person, the giving of what is needful, and a just and merciful regard for every person are the human expression of love’s ethical responsibility. All human passions and relationships have their ground form and criterion of judgment in this ethos.

God’s dealing with his world does involve his own suffering. His love manifests itself in the communication of his longing, his agonizing over his world. His rower remains sovereign, and its work will be done, but God does not live untouched by what happens. The insight that the work of love gets done in the world through the suffering of God’s prophets, his messengers and finally his Messiah, begins to find its expression in the faith of Israel.

There is a final obscurity, however, about the way of the divine love which the Old Testament does not resolve. It concerns the question of whether and how the suffering of God becomes the decisive action through which he meets the need, not only of Israel, but of the whole creation. The problem of God’s dealing with all of history still stands out as the unresolved source of tension in the Old Testament. Is the suffering of Israel the way in which the nations are finally made to know the love of God? We have no clear affirmation of this. Does God make the disclosure of his love the real meaning of the suffering of his Servant? We again do not have an unequivocal answer. How does the suffering of God in love become decisive for salvation? It is here that the New Testament begins.


1. The literature here is extensive. Supporting the view taken in the text is C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge University Press, 1953).

Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, English translation by Kendrick Grobel (London: S.C.M. Press, 1952, 1955; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957).

Robert H. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

On the development of dogma in the early period in relation to philosophical issues see Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, pp. 140-5; London: James Nisbet & Co., 1957). Daniel D. Williams, ‘Deity, Monarchy and Metaphysics, Whitehead’s Critique of the Theological Tradition,’ in Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead (New York: Macmillan, 1961; London: Allen & Unwin, 1961).

2. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, revised English translation by Philip S. Watson (London: S.P.C.K., 1953).

3. G. Quell and E. Stauffer, Love, English translation from the G. Kittel, Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1949). Cf. critical comments on the influence of theological perspectives in the Worterbuch in James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford University Press, 1961).

4. Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1944), p. 103.

5. Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962), pp. 113-14.

6. Nygren’s attempt to restrict the faith of Israel to the nomos motif seems to me to do less than justice to the place of love in Judaism. On the relation of love and righteousness see Snaith, op. cit. and Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950; London: S.C.M. Press, 1953).

7. David R. Mace, Hebrew Marriage (London: Epworth Press, 1953).

8. Martin Buber, ‘The Power of the Spirit’ in Israel and the World (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), p. 180.

9. Snaith, op. cit., p. 139.

10. H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1960, p. 57; London: Faber & Faber, 1961).

11. Ibid., pp. 42-3.

12. Karl Barth, Nein: Antwort and Emil Brunner (Munchen, 1934).

13. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Pt. 1, Sec. 41 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).

14. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 43-44.

15. Lewis I. Newman, ed., Talmudic Anthology (New York: Behrman House, 1945), p. 144.

16. Among the important discussions of the messianic idea are Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1949); Rudolph Otto, The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, new and revised Eng. ed. (Boston: Starr King Press, 1957); Sigmund Mowinckel, He Who Cometh (New York: Abingdon, 1954; Oxford: Basil Blackwell & Mott Ltd., 1958). T. W. Manson, The Servant Messiah (Cambridge University Press, 1956); Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Volume II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943; London: James Nisbet & Co., 1943).

17. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: S.P.C.K., 1948).

18. Matthew Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1961; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961).

19. M. D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London: S.P.C.K.. 1959).

20. Ivan Engnell, The ‘Ebed Yahweh Songs and the Suffering Messiah in ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Manchester, V. 31, No. 1, Jan. 1948, p. 84.

21. James Muilenburg, Exegesis of Second Isaiah in the Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1954).

22. Muilenburg, loc. cit.

23. Heschel, The Prophets, p. 111.

24. Ibid., p. 225.