God’s Compassion in the Old Testament

7045148587_7385530f06_oSome prominent figures in the history of philosophy, such as Hegel and Spinoza, have said roughly either that God is nature or that nature is part of God.1.  Similar to this view is the position that God is an impersonal life-force.2  C.S. Lewis describes this kind of thinking:

When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?3

This article is not designed to refute the view of God as life-force. Rather, I want to focus on God’s compassion for a moment: The tragedy of believing that God is an impersonal force is that it removes God’s compassion. If God is impersonal, then He cannot prefer that things turn out one way or another for us. Thus, His infinite resources are not at our disposal in trying to live according to His will, as the Bible teaches that they are (e.g., Genesis 6:5-8; Matthew 17:20, 26:42; Romans 8:28, James 1:5-6).

The Bible teaches that God is compassionate toward mankind, and that He cannot change (e.g., Exodus, 22:27; Romans 5:11; Malachi 3:6). Therefore, we would expect that God has always been compassionate. Some suggest, however, that God was anything but compassionate in the Old Testament4

However, an honest look at the Old Testament reveals that God’s character has been consistent throughout all time. Here is a passage from the Psalms that illustrates His compassion toward the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness:

Therefore, when the LORD heard, he was full of wrath; a fire was kindled against Jacob; his anger rose against Israel, because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven,and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance. He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind; he rained meat on them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas; he let them fall in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them, and he killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel. In spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe. So he made their days vanish like a breath, and their years in terror. When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought God earnestly. They remembered that God was their rock, the Most High God their redeemer. But they flattered him with their mouths; they lied to him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward him; they were not faithful to his covenant. Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath (Psalms 78-21-38).

Notice that Romans 5:11 teaches that reconciliation, or atonement, occurs through Christ. After all, it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). So, as Psalms 78 says that atonement occurs because of God’s compassion, we can say that the entire scheme of redemption, which is recorded historically in the Bible, is the product of God’s compassion. The book of Jonah is a study in God’s position that salvation was not just for one nationality during the period when the Law of Moses was applicable in Israel. Romans 2-4 is a study of how salvation is for all during the New Testament age. If God’s portrayal in the Old Testament seems different from His portrayal in the New Testament, it is because the text of the Old Testament is largely concerned with a covenant that has been superseded by Christianity; the law of Moses was a “guardian until Christ came” (Galatians 3:24; cf. Hebrews).

Finally, note that Christians have responded will to the challenges that God condoned immoral practices in the Old Testament.5

  1. Pauline Phemister, The Rationalists: Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 80-81; Raymond Keith Williamson, An Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion (New York, SUNY Press, 1984). 

  2. E.g., Michele Toomey, “Liberated Theology,” http://www.mtoomey.com/Liberated_Theology.html (2012). 

  3. Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins), 26. 

  4. E.g., Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Chicago: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 51; Charles Templeton, Farewell To God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith (New York: Random House, 2011). 

  5. E.g., Dave Miller, “Did God Order the Killing of Babies?,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=2810 (2009); ibid., “The Imprecatory Psalms,” Apologetics Press, (http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=4707 (2013); Kyle Butt, “The Death of David’s Son,” Apologetics Press, https://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=2202 (2007). 

- 2017