Essay / Theology

Loving God, and Saying So in the Bible

When you love God, it seems altogether natural to say so: to God (“I love you, Lord”) and to others (“I love the Lord”). But OT scholar Daniel Block claims that it’s just not an Old Testament thing to do.

Block has made this claim in a few places. I just saw it again in his recent How I Love Your Torah, O Lord! Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy (Cascade, 2011). Here is how he puts it: “Given the ubiquitous practice in contemporary worship, it comes as a surprise to many to learn that in the Old Testament people would never have had the chutzpah to tell God they love him.”

Never ever? I mentioned this surprising claim to my wife, and (Proverbs Thirtywonderful Thang that she is) she immediately replied, “what about Psalm 18?” “I love you, O LORD, my strength.” That sure sounds like an Old Testament person having the chutzpah to say he loves God. And what about Psalm 116, “I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice?” No, more chutzpah!

But apparently not. As Block immediately explains in a footnote, those apparently straightforward statements are much more oblique in the original Hebrew text:

The verb ahab, “to love, to demonstrate covenant commitment in action that serves the interest of the other,” never appears with a first person subject with God as the object. Neither Ps 18:1 nor 116:1 contradicts this observation. In Ps 18:1 the psalmist intentionally avoids the statement, preferring an extremely awkward construction involving the only occurrence in the entire Old Testament of the qal form of raham , which in piel means “to show pity, have compassion,” and always expresses the disposition of a superior to an inferior in need. Psalm 116:1 does indeed use the verb ahab with a first person subject, but the Hebrew translates literally, “I love because YHWH has heard my voice.” As in 1 John 4:19, the verb lacks an object.

The explanation makes sense, even though, not knowing Hebrew, I have to take Block’s word for the awkward qal and piel part. And I can’t think of any other passages that even apparently contradict his claim. So we do have here a very interesting observation about the Old Testament: nobody says “I love God” with the kind of directness I would have expected!

Block contrasts this OT reticence to say “I love God” with “the ubiquitous practice in contemporary worship,” but I’m more interested in the millennia in between: Is “I love God” (or “I love you, God”) a New Testament kind of thing to say? Did it become part of Christian prayer early, and in what context? If the practice just became ubiquitous in the 1960’s, that’s cause to pause, but I bet it goes further back.

I’m tempted to say that the filial boldness of the new covenant might lead believers in Christ to speak with more freedom (parrhesia) toward God than was conceivable before the coming of Christ and the Spirit. Perhaps this OT background provides contrast for the NT breakthrough, in which we are given confidence to enter into the holy place by a new and living way. It may be that when we are adopted as sons, we cry not only “Abba, Father,” but also “I love you, Lord.” There may be a logic to the new covenant which (though I can’t think of any explicit statements to this effect in the New Testament) inevitably leads to this kind of praise.

On the other hand, there may be a biblical reverence and restraint here that spans both testaments and offers more direct instruction to us about how we should speak. In the Bible, the idea of love is bundled with the idea of giving. When John says that God loved the world, he explains his meaning by saying “God… gave his only Son (John 3:16).” When Paul says that the Son of God loved him, he explains his meaning by saying “he gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).” Perhaps, in the biblical mind, to say “I love God” would carry the connotation of “I give something to God,” which would be all wrong (or at least in need of careful, dialectical explanation). As Block points out (in the footnote quoted above), even 1 John doesn’t say “We love God, because he first loved us,” but the verb “lacks an object,” saying “we love, because he first loved us.” Is this a pervasive biblical usage rule?

Block’s main point, however, is not the absence of direct statements about loving God, but the “equally surprising” presence of “unrestrained expressions of love for the Torah, particularly in Ps 119.” What the Bible is filled with is elaborate statements of love for the law of God. If these shock our sensibilities or stand in need of explanation, that tells us something about our sensibilities, and invites us to be formed instead by what is actually said in Scripture. As you can tell, I’m apparently not far down that path.

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