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.

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