Many people in today’s world are skeptical of the Old Testament and want little to do with it because they believe that the vengeful and cruel Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, stands in sharp contrast to the God they read about in the New Testament. Most of these naysayers believe this only because either someone told them it was so or they read it somewhere—and not because they have actually read the Old Testament. And a scant few of these Old Testament deniers realize that Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, was our premortal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Certainly, there are examples in the Old Testament where Jehovah seems to punish disobedience much more harshly than the infractions seemed to deserve. A notable example is the case of Achan, a man from the tribe of Judah, who (along with his family and all that he owned) suffered the ultimate punishment because Achan took spoils from the city of Jericho contrary to Jehovah’s commandment. Achan’s punishment is described in Joshua 7:24–25:
“And Joshua and all Israel with him, took Achan… and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor… And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire…”
Another example is found in 2 Samuel 24 (the same account is also in 1 Chronicles 21) that tells of Israel being smitten with three days of pestilence, at the cost of 700,000 lives, for an infraction committed by King David that we do not even understand completely.
And we could point to many other examples.
I offer no explanations for any of these reported Old Testament events except to say that you and I do not understand everything—at least I don’t. But I cannot help feeling that something has been lost from the scriptural account of these incidents—they seem to be incomplete in some way that is critical to complete understanding. Thus, I truly believe that when the day comes, in the eternal worlds, when we know all the facts, we will understand these events differently than we do now.
That having been said, I think it is also useful for us to look at the other side—at those cases where Jehovah’s love and His willingness to forgive are patently obvious but are seldom brought up in discussions of Jehovah’s attributes.
Old Testament examples of God’s love and His willingness to forgive
Near the end of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, Moses explained to the people how much God loved them, how He had blessed them, and how He would continue to bless them if they would also love Him and keep His commandments:
For thou art an holy people unto the Lord [Jehovah] thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:6–9).
Does that not give us a marvelous insight into God’s love for his children?
During the dark days after the kingdom of Israel had been taken captive by the Assyrians and Judah was gravely threatened by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, Jehovah, through His prophets, pleaded mightily with the people to repent so He might deliver them from oppression. Two such cases are found in the book of Ezekiel. In both cases, Jehovah instructed Ezekiel exactly what to tell the people. The first example says:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye (Ezekiel 18:30–32).
And the second example:
As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)
God is a God of justice, and He will not be mocked. But because of His great mercy and His boundless love for His sinful children—even those who prostituted themselves to false gods—He stands ever ready to forgive them if they will turn from their wickedness.
Speaking the very words that Jehovah had told him, the prophet Jeremiah also told the people of Judah of Jehovah’s love for them and the promises He would fulfill in their behalf if they would repent.
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place [Jerusalem]… For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:3, 5–7).
In other words, Jehovah promised the people of Judah that they would be spared captivity if they would but keep His commandments.
The following scripture concerning the pending Babylonian captivity is also from Jeremiah. It is Jehovah’s instruction to King Zedekiah—and also to his servants and to the people of Judah. Oh, how He yearned for these children of the covenant to repent and return to Him:
Hear the word of the Lord, O king of Judah, that sittest upon the throne of David, thou, and thy servants, and thy people that enter in by these gates: Thus saith the Lord; Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place. For if ye do this thing indeed, then shall there enter in by the gates of this house kings sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, he, and his servants, and his people (Jeremiah 22:2–4).
The story of Jonah provides yet another witness of God’s love for His children, even those who are not His chosen people, if they will repent and turn to Him. When Jonah was displeased because the wicked people of Nineveh repented and avoided the destruction that God had decreed, God put the issue into proper perspective when He asked Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?”
This strange question arose because Jonah, who had been sheltered from the heat of the sun by a gourd vine, was upset because the gourd vine died. In response to the Lord’s question, Jonah responded that he did do well by his anger, “even unto death.”
Jehovah responded to Jonah’s answer: “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh,” He asked, “that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” (Jonah 4:10–11).
The lesson is simple: If Jonah could love a gourd vine in which he had invested nothing, how much more should God love His children and rejoice when they repent and turn to Him?
Miraculous deliverance as evidence of God’s love
Taking another tack to illustrate Jehovah’s love for the people of the Old Testament, it is useful to point to the numerous accounts that tell of His miraculous deliverance of His people from their enemies. Consider whether Jehovah would have delivered His chosen people from the situations described here if He did not love. Also, consider whether they would actually be His “chosen people” if He did not love them
The following are Old Testament accounts of Jehovah’s miraculous deliverance of His people:
- The deliverance of Enoch and the City of Zion from the wickedness of the world when they were translated and taken to heaven (Moses 6–7).
- The deliverance of Abra(ha)m from the Egyptian priests when they were offering him as a human sacrifice (Abraham 1).
- The deliverance of the Jacob and his family from the seven-year famine and into Egypt (Genesis 41–47).
- The deliverance of the children of Israel out of their Egyptian bondage (Exodus 2–14).
- The deliverance of the Amorites and their five kings into Israel’s hands (with a great hailstorm and the sun being turned to blood) when Joshua and the army of Israel went to the aid of the Gibeonites (Joshua 10).
- The deliverance of Israel from bondage to the Mesopotamians by Othniel, Caleb’s nephew (Judges 3).
- The deliverance of Israel from bondage to the Ammonites and Amalekites by Ehud (Judges 3).
- The deliverance of Israel from bondage to the Canaanites by Deborah and Barak (Judges 4).
- The deliverance of Israel from bondage to the mighty Midianites by Gideon and his 300-man army (Judges 6–8).
- The deliverance of Israel, under Jephthah, from threatened destruction by the Ammonites (Judges 10–11).
- The deliverance of Israel from Philistine oppression through the mighty, miraculous, strength of Samson (Judges 13–16).
- The deliverance of Israel, under the prophet Samuel, from the Philistines, through means of a great storm (1 Samuel 7).
- The deliverance of the Philistine army into the hands of Jonathan and the army of Israel (1 Samuel 14).
- The deliverance of the Philistine giant, Goliath, into the hands of David (1 Samuel 17).
- The deliverance of the Syrian army into the hands of King Ahab’s much smaller army of Israel (twice) (1 Kings 20). Here the Lord used a wicked King (Ahab) to overthrow the might of the more wicked Syrians.
- The deliverance of the Moabites into the hands of Israel, Judah, and Edom (2 Kings 3).
- The deliverance of Israel from the Syrian siege of Samaria (2 Kings 7).
- The deliverance of King Jehoshaphat and Judah (without so much as lifting their swords) from the invading armies of the Ammonites, the Moabites, and the people of Mount Seir (2 Chronicles 19–20).
- The deliverance of Judah and Jerusalem, under King Hezekiah, from the siege of the Assyrians and King Sennacherib against Jerusalem when 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died in one night (2 Kings 18–19; 2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36–37).
Jehovah’s characterization of himself as the husband and Israel as the wife
Is there a greater, a more perfect, or a more tender love in the experience of mortals than the love of a husband for his wife? Or of a wife for her husband? Jehovah frequently characterized himself as the husband and Israel as the wife—often the wayward wife. This was a significant theme in the writings of many Old Testament prophets (much like the New Testament theme of Jesus and the bride and the church as the bride). One excellent example is in the writings of Isaiah:
Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called. For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God (Isaiah 54:4–6).
Other examples can be found in Ezekiel 16 and Jeremiah 3:14. This analogy is used especially in those scriptures foretelling the latter-day gathering of Jehovah’s chosen people.
Can we genuinely question Jehovah’s love for the people of the Old Testament, especially for Israel, His chosen covenant people? I think that to do so is to miss one of the great messages of the Old Testament. And we must bear in mind also that Jehovah’s love cannot be separated or distinguished from The Father’s love. And because that is true, perhaps the greatest affirmation we have of that marvelous and undying love is actually found in the New Testament, in the gospel of John:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16–17).
Though evidence of Jehovah’s love for his children is abundant in the Old Testament, we as God’s children have received no greater message than this.
The Old Testament: understand it, love it!