God’s Covenant Love

Barb Wire

One can never say too much about the love of God. I have written many articles dealing with this tremendous attribute of God, but there can always be plenty more. That is because the love of God is always to be wondered and marveled at, meditated upon, delighted in, and proclaimed far and wide.

The truth of the covenantal love of God is found equally throughout both halves of the Bible. It is important to stress this fact for various reasons. One is that many ill-informed and biblically illiterate folks (both friend and foe alike) will foolishly claim that the God of the Old Testament is just a mean, wrathful deity who is not at all like the loving merciful Jesus of the New Testament.

Obviously atheists and misotheists will repeatedly peddle this line. Richard Dawkins for example wrote that the Old Testament is “just plain weird” and that the God found there is simply a “cruel ogre” and a “monster”. But sadly too many Christians think this way as well.

They really should start actually reading the Hebrew Scriptures instead of mindlessly parroting the attacks of the God-haters. If they would, they would discover that the overwhelming love, tenderness and mercy of God is found throughout those 39 books.

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There are just so many incredible discussions of this found there. Here I simply want to look at just one brief passage on this, one which I came upon in my daily reading. In a mere three short verses we find another wonderful description of the love of God, and the covenantal faithfulness he shows to his people. I refer to Isaiah 49:14-16 which states:

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.

Of course the context here is the exile, and it would seem natural indeed that Yahweh had in fact abandoned his people. But a short-term chastisement and punishment of God should not be seen as irrevocable or permanent. God still had plans for his people, and earlier on we read about how God will even use a pagan ruler like Cyrus as his “anointed” one to see to it that Israel returns from captivity (Is 45:1).

So in this period of overwhelming gloom and discouragement, God offers these remarkable words of hope, love and commitment. In fact, just a bit earlier Yahweh had addressed a similar complaint, as noted in Is 40:27:

Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Despite the recurring failings, rebellion, and sin of his people, God’s covenant love keeps on shining through. So even though Zion is depicted as a deserted wife and a barren woman (both incredibly devastating tragedies in such a culture), God is still at work, and is still able to achieve his purposes.

He has not forsaken and abandoned Zion. God responds in unfailing love, and like the Servant mentioned in these chapters, is committed to the work of redemption and restoration. John Oswalt comments on the incredible words of Yahweh:

God uses the strongest images of personal attachment to protest that he has not forgotten or forsaken Zion. He asks a rhetorical question concerning mothers and their attachments to the children they have borne in their wombs and nursed at their breasts. Can mothers forget? The assumed answer is, ‘Of course not!’

Regrettably some earthly mothers do abandon their own children. “But whatever the failures of mothers, God does not forget! God’s attachment is more than a mother’s. The prophet asks us to think of a mother’s attachment and then go one step farther. That is what God’s attachment to us is. Much the same point is made in Ps. 27:10: ‘If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up’.” Or as John Goldingay comments: “Her portrait stands on Yahweh’s desk all the time, reminding Yahweh of her brokenness.”

The second image of Zion being engraved on God’s hands (v. 16) is also quite remarkable. Says Oswalt, “Here is the opposite of the normal practice. Instead of the master’s name being written on the servant’s hand, the servant’s name is written on the master’s hand. This is the divine condescension that we have come to expect throughout the book. The master does not expect the servant somehow to attain his height; rather, the master comes down to the servant’s place (11:1-4; 30:18; 57:15-16; 66:2).”

And as Gary Smith remarks, “To reassure Zion and prove the point in an even stronger way, God opens his hand and challenges Zion to ‘observe, see’ an image that was permanently ‘engraved’ on the palm of God’s hand. This is not a tattoo on the back of his hand, and it is not something written with weak ink that can fade or be erased; this is permanently carved into his metaphorical flesh.”

These two images offer remarkable assurance and comfort. Says Barry Webb, “The images are mixed and do not always cohere logically, but they affirm God’s love for his people and his tireless commitment to their welfare. That is the truth about him and his engagement with them, and if they are too despondent to grasp it now he will carry them until they can (cf. 46:3-4).”

This amazing passage offered terrific news to a despondent and discouraged people some two and a half millennia ago. And it offers the same solace, hope and assurance to his people today. Let us never, ever forget, ignore, or minimise the covenant love of God.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com. Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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