“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8). The love of God is universal, persistent, ever present, and fiercely determined to set things right.
I have read carefully through the entire Bible again and again, looking for all the relevant passages on the universal love of God. The survey you are about to read contains almost every place in the Bible on the love, kindness, pity, and compassion of God. I was especially interested in those passages in which God’s concern for all people is emphasized. I did not include many passages in which people are calling out to God to be gracious or merciful, although even those show an expectation, grounded in God’s experienced character, that God will, in fact, be so. We begin our survey with Genesis.
I. The Old Testament
The Bible begins with the familiar words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1, TNIV) . It begins with God’s bringing into being all things and God’s concern for and appreciation of all things. God wants light and order, instead of darkness and chaos (1:1-4). God loves the land and the sky and the waters. God loves all the creatures God made, including us humans, whom God created in God’s own likeness, and to whom he gave special responsibility to care for all the natural world that God had made. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (1:31).
God placed humans in the garden of the earth he had made and gave it to us all, with all its beauty and provision for our needs, even our need for companionship and love, as a benefit of God’s love for us (2:7-9, 18-25). We are to till and keep God’s garden (2:15). We are meant to live in harmony with God and to follow his way (2:16-17).
But we turned inexplicably against God, rejecting God’s way, not trusting God’s love. We followed “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” We believed lies about God that came from evil 3:4-5). We did what was right in our own eyes, for our own benefit, apart from God and God’s way (3:6). And so we hide from the one who made us and loves us. We began to be afraid of God (3:8-10). We began to blame everyone else for our sense of alienation and guilt (3:12-13).
But God keeps on loving us and makes provision for us even after we turn away from God and his way. God keeps us from harming ourselves further and clothes us in God’s care (3:21-23).
Our rebellion against God’s way of love and fellowship with God and one another, evidenced by violence and murder. Though some of us walk with God in God’s way (5:21,24; 6:8-9), most of us, like Cain, we turn away from the presence of the Lord (4:1-16; 6:11-12), and the continuously evil inclination of our hearts (6:5,12) makes us think that God must regret that God has created us. This is not true, but it is what we think. We project onto God our own despair with ourselves at our worst (6:6-7).
We think that God would want to wipe us out (6:7, 13); this is our sense of guilt talking. Instead God saves humanity and all the animals through the cataclysm of the Flood. God wants to cleanse the earth, for our sake, from all that is wrong. God show mercy to us, and we find “grace in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8 KJV). God rescues us from the Flood (7); and God “remembers” us (8:1; 9:15). God makes a covenant with us and even the animals to mercifully preserve us from destruction and to provide us with a dependable natural world (8:21-22). God, however, recognizes that we remain wayward and inclined to evil (8:21), as the tower of Babel story shows (11:1-9). Throughout Genesis 1-11 God shows love and concern for all creation, for all humanity, despite our wandering away like lost sheep.
The benevolent character of God does not change with the Genesis story’s new focus on Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12-50). When God calls Abraham, God promises that he will make Abraham’s name great, “so that you will be a blessing” (12:2) and that in him “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (12:3). Though God chooses to work God’s will purposes through a particular family, it is for the purpose of blessing all the families of the earth. When Abraham trusted God’s promise to him, God “reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). That is, God rewarded Abraham’s faith with the gift of a right relationship with God and made a covenant with him to fulfill his promises (15:18; 17:2, 4, 7). The nations that will come from Abraham will enjoy God’s covenant favor also. God will bless Isaac, Abraham’s son, and all his descendants, and ultimate all the nations of the earth.
God also dealt kindly with Hagar (Gen. 16) and blessed Ishmael, Abraham’s other son, not once but both times Sarah had them evicted (17:18-21; 21:8-21)! Even though God’s covenant is with Abraham and his descendants, the long-term purpose is always the blessing of the all the families of the earth.
Though God would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, he remembered to show mercy (chemlah) to Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family by rescuing them from the evil men of Sodom (19:16, 29).
As Abraham again demonstrated his trust in the Lord by not refusing to sacrifice the son on whom all God’s promises depended (22:1-14), God renewed his blessing, promising Abraham abundant offspring by whom “shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves” (22:18). And God promised the same blessing of the nations to Isaac (26:4) and Jacob (27:29). At Bethel, God said to Jacob, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (28:14).
Isaac and Jacob
Abraham’s family recognizes the character of God as steadfast love (chesed) and faithfulness (emeth). Abraham’s unnamed servant, who walks with God (24:40) extols God’s steadfast love (chesed) and faithfulness (emeth) in the provision of a wife (Rebekah) for Isaac (24:27). God promises to be with Isaac and to bless him (26:24). Jacob meets God at Bethel, where God extends to him the same promises made to Abraham and Isaac, and further promises to be with Jacob. God also has mercy on and remembers Leah the unloved (29:31) and Rachel the favored (30:22). Later, Jacob, fearful of what may happen in his encounter with Esau, acknowledges that he is unworthy of all the chesed and emeth God has shown him in the past (32:10: 33:11).
God also shows his character in the stories of Jacob’s son, Joseph (Gen. 37-50). Though Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave, the Lord was with him in Egypt and caused him to prosper (39:2-3). Though falsely accused of attempted rape and imprisoned, Joseph experienced the presence of the Lord and his “steadfast love” (39:21, 23). He tells Pharaoh about the sovereign God who reveals his certain plans for Egypt in time to prepare for a coming famine (Gen. 41). And he credits God with using the evil actions of his brothers to send him to Egypt in order “to preserve life” (45:5, 7, 8). “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (50:20). God tells Jacob not to be afraid to take his family to Egypt, for God will be with him there and make him a great nation (46:3-4). So Jacob, just before his death, blesses Joseph and his sons, passing on them the divine promise to become a great nation (48:15-16, 19; 49:25-26), a promise of God’s saving presence, that will one day be fulfilled for the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (50:24).
We have a pattern, then, established in the opening book of the Bible. God brings all things into being and is relatively in control of what happens in the world. People can act contrary to God’s will, and God’s judgment follows. But God cares for his creation, the world of people and animals. He acts to bless them, to help and guide them, to deliver them, even when they make wrong choices, and God enters into covenant with them to accomplish God’s purpose, to bless all the nations of the earth.
Along the way, we learn about God’s character. God is kind and just, merciful and gracious. People who know God say that he acts with steadfast love and faithfulness toward them, to preserve life and to care for them. God walks with people and is ever present to them.