Who Does God Love?: Exodus

This is part of a blog series entitled “Who Does God Love?” The series explores how God’s love for the world is to be understood in light of his hatred for those who do wrong (Ps. 5:5-6). In this post, we will examine what the book of Exodus has to say on this matter. Click here to see other posts in this series.

Who Does God Love? Exodus

Exodus is a challenging book. God’s actions and words in this book remind me of The Chronicles of Narnia, where Aslan is said to be “good” but not “safe” and “not like a tame lion.”1C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Chronicles of Narnia 1. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1950), chap. 8 and 17. He is not the God you would expect and not the God you would imagine but through and through the only God you can trust.

The Great I AM

To say that God is “not safe” is an understatement when we consider the time he sought to kill Moses (Ex. 4:24-26), the devastating plagues he sent against Egypt, and his angered response to the golden calf in which 3,000 Israelites were slain (Ex. 32—33). These are challenging things to read.

In Exodus 6:3 God says to Moses, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.” This is the same God from Genesis speaking, but he is now revealing himself in new and startling ways that are well-encapsulated by his name—the LORD: “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:13-15).

“He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?'” (Dan. 4:35). He is who he is. And that is why Exodus is such a challenging book.

In our postmodern world we like to say proudly of ourselves, “You can’t define me! I am who I am!” But only God can rightly say such a thing. Instead we ought to say, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you” (Ex. 33:13).

But what does all of this have to do with our topic of God’s love?

First, I think this is a good reminder to us as we proceed that we should not let our cultural preconceptions of love (e.g. tolerance, romance, etc.) define God or his love. Our preconceptions are not necessarily bad, but we should let God do the defining by his written Word. We won’t know if our preconceptions are incorrectly coloring our view of God until we examine what the Bible teaches about him and his love.

Second, I think the most significant contribution Exodus makes to our discussion here is that it begins to explain the purpose behind God’s covenant love. (Please refer to my post on Genesis for an explanation of what covenant love means.)

God’s Jealous Love

In Genesis we saw God establish the covenant with Abraham, but almost no explanation was given for why God did this. The theme of covenant love continues in Exodus as God performs the covenant actions of rescuing Israel and punishing Egypt.2He rescues Israel because “he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (Ex. 2:24; cf. 3:6ff; 6:2ff). He punishes Egypt because this is a necessary part of the rescue (Ex. 3:19) and because he promised Abraham he would do so (Gen. 15:14; cf. 12:3). However, over and over again throughout Exodus, God reveals that his covenant love is ultimately for himself—that is, for his own glory, his own pleasure, his own name.

For example:

  • “The LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Ex. 8:1; cf. 3:12; 4:23; 5:1, 3; 7:16; 8:20; 9:1, 13; 10:3).
  • The LORD says repeatedly that he rescues Israel and punishes Egypt so that they may know he is the LORD. See Exodus 6:6-7; 10:2; 7:5, 17; 8:10. This emphasis continues in the latter part of Exodus. See Exodus 29:46; 31:13.
  • “Confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews says . . . I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex. 9:15-16; cf. 9:29). God’s purpose in all this was not simply to rescue Israel or to punish Egypt. His grand purpose was to show his power and proclaim his name in all the earth.
  • “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD” (Ex. 14:4; cf. 14:17-18). Pharaoh has finally let Israel go, but now the LORD hardens his heart one last time so that he and his army pursue Israel to their deaths. Why? So that he will gain glory for himself through defeating Pharaoh, and so that the Egyptians will know he is the LORD.
  • “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6; cf. Ex. 34:9). Divine pleasure is surely involved here, as the LORD treasures his chosen people.
  • The Ten Commandments begin by decreeing that the LORD alone is God and that he alone should be worshiped (Ex. 20:3-6).

Yes, the LORD rescued Israel because he loved them and was concerned for them (Ex. 2:25; 3:7; 15:13). Yes, he punished Egypt because of their wicked mistreatment of his people. But the greater emphasis throughout Exodus is that the LORD did these things out of a concern for his own glory, his own pleasure, and his own name.

Does this mean our God is selfish or egotistical? Certainly not! Those are sinful qualities, but our God is holy and full of goodness (Ex. 15:11; 33:19-20).

The better way to put it is that our God is jealous. This is how God himself puts it: “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:14; cf. Ex. 20:5).

But isn’t jealousy sinful also? Not necessarily.

As J.I. Packer points out in Knowing God, there is a prideful, envious, distrustful jealousy that is not right at all. But then there is also a righteous sort of jealousy. It is right for a husband to be jealous if his wife is being unfaithful to him. His jealousy in that situation is a protective response, seeking to guard a relationship that is rightly exclusive, belonging only to him and his wife.3J.I. Packer, Knowing God, Americanized ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), chap. 17.

This righteous jealousy is similar to God’s jealousy.

Our God is “majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders” (Ex. 15:11). He is “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6-7). He owns the whole earth (Ex. 19:5; 9:29). He is the LORD!

There is no one like our God, and he deserves the exclusive worship of his people. All glory and honor belong to him, and he is rightly jealous for his own name.

What we learn from all this is that God’s covenant love is motivated by what we might call his “jealous love”—that is, his love for the glory of his name. In all things, including the covenant, God is jealous for his glory.

Therefore, God loves his people because it brings him glory to love them. And he punishes the wicked for the same reason (as we saw above with Pharaoh).

J.I. Packer writes that, as Christians, our response to God’s jealousy should be that we too are zealous for his glory. “God’s people should be positively and passionately devoted to his person, his cause and his honor,” just as he himself is.4J.I. Packer, Knowing God, Americanized ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 173.

This is the main thing Exodus teaches us about the love of God. But before closing I feel we should also take a look at a certain “problem passage” in Exodus. If not rightly understood, this passage could cause us to doubt the faithfulness of God’s covenant love.

Faithful and Holy

I am referring to the famous golden calf incident from Exodus 32 as well as the repercussions that follow in Chapters 33-34. But we will only look at a portion of it here.

While the people were worshiping the golden calf and indulging in shameful revelry, the LORD said to Moses on the mountain, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them. . . . Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation” (Ex. 32:7-10).

“But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God,” pleading with him to turn from his “fierce anger” (Ex. 32:11-12). “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (Ex. 32:14).

At first glance this passage may be troubling because it seems as though the LORD is forsaking his covenant and turning his back on his people. But didn’t we learn in Genesis that God’s covenant love is enduring, unconditional, and electing? How can this be?

Here are three thoughts that may help us deal with this difficult passage:

1. First, we should note that some of the problems we wrestle with in the Old Testament will not be fully resolved until Jesus Christ enters the scene in the New Testament. This is especially the case when it comes to the problem of how sinners relate to a holy God and how a holy God relates to sinners.

2. Moses’ plea in Exodus 32:11-13 is essentially that the LORD, for his name’s sake, should follow through on his promise.5Here is Moses’ plea from Exodus 32:11-13, “11 ‘O LORD,’ he said, ‘why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.”‘” Verse 12 is concerned with the name of the LORD being slandered by the Egyptians. He has God’s jealous love in mind here. Verses 11 and 13 are concerned with the LORD following through on his promise instead of changing his mind. He is asking the LORD to be a God who keeps his word and not a God who changes his mind. Since God grants Moses’ plea, we can conclude that he is in fact a God who keeps his word. Far from proving him fickle, his relenting proves his faithfulness.6I think it is also significant that even within the LORD’s threat to destroy Israel is a promise to make Moses into a great nation (Ex. 32:10). If, hypothetically, God had actually destroyed Israel, he still would have fulfilled his promise to Abraham by making Moses into the great nation of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:2). Being faithful and forgiving is actually part of what it means for him to be “the LORD,” as we read in Exodus 34:6-7 (cf. Joel 2:13-14; Jon. 4:1-2).

3. But then, if God is faithful, why did he threaten destruction at all? Because the LORD is holy and rightly jealous for his name. When Israel worshiped an idol, they showed contempt for the name of the LORD and for the word of the LORD which already commanded them not to do this (Ex. 20:3-6). Some degree of punishment was certainly in order. And if God threatened total destruction for this, then we can trust him that total destruction was the punishment they deserved. His threat of destruction was an expression of his holiness. Part of what it means for him to be the LORD is that “he does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:7; cf. 32:33-34). In fact, he did punish Israel by having the Levites kill three thousand Israelites (Ex. 32:27-29, 35). But he was still very merciful to them and did not destroy them completely or abandon his covenant promise or withdraw his presence from them (see Ex. 33:12-17).

As noted above, by restricting ourselves largely to Genesis and Exodus, we close ourselves off from the more complete, satisfying explanations taught by the whole of Scripture. This is admittedly a drawback in the approach I’ve chosen for this blog series. But for the time being, hopefully the above points will help us see the holiness and faithfulness of the LORD, even in a difficult passage like this.

In Short

Exodus is not an easy book to read, and after all my intensive studying for this blog, I still don’t understand it all. But at least for the purposes of this series, there are three main things we can learn from Exodus about the love of God.

1. The LORD is who he is. This does not mean he is fickle and erratic, but rather that he is constant, sovereign, and self-defining. We dare not define him or his love except by his own sovereign Word.

2. God is jealous for the glory of his own name. He loves his people because it brings him glory to love them. He punishes the wicked for the same reason. All that he does in creation is for his own glory, his own pleasure, and his own name. Let us be grateful for his love but also humbly accept that it is not all about us. To him be the glory!

3. God is faithful and holy. In his holiness he punishes sinners. But even amid the terror of passages like Exodus 32, he proves to be faithful and forgiving and full of covenant love.

In the next post we will examine what the book of Leviticus teaches about the objects of God’s love. We will also see how the teachings in Leviticus relate to what we have learned so far in Genesis and Exodus. I have a feeling Leviticus 10 and 26 will be especially helpful to our discussion here. Stay tuned!

To access footnotes, hover mouse over the footnote numbers, or click “+” next to “Notes” below.

Notes   [ + ]

2 thoughts on “Who Does God Love?: Exodus

  1. The more I ponder God’s jealousy for us, His people, the more loved I feel. He wants us to be in love with nothing and no one LESS than Himself – He who IS love. No one else would ever satisfy and our relationship with Him brings us joy along with Him glory! It’s pretty wonderful and it culminates in Revelation when our bridegroom finally comes for us and we are together in the city that needs no light because He is our light!! But I do realize we have a lot more books to walk through, first. 🙂 I am enjoying the way you write, Tim. It’s layman friendly while theologically rich. Thank you.

    1. Yes, it is pretty wonderful!! Reminds me of some of the things John Piper teaches about how God loves us the best by giving us himself since he is best! Glad to hear my writing is layman friendly without sacrificing any depth. That’s a tough balance to keep sometimes.

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