Has it ever struck you that there is only one verse in the whole Bible, both testaments, that says “I love you” and has God as the object of the verb “love”?
You might think of the restoration of Peter, in John 21, where Jesus goads Peter three times into saying “I love you” to him. Which, come to think of it, is in itself a kind of capsule presentation of the work of Christ. Would it not be a fair presentation of the gospel, of the entire significance of the incarnation, and of the cross, to say that this is the length to which God goes to enable us, even compel us (“the love of Christ constrains us”), to turn to the God from whom Christ comes and to whom Christ returns and say, “I love you”? Peter, standing for all of us, says, in some distress, “You know that I love you!” and his Lord returns to the Father, taking that vow of love with him.
But really, isn’t it an odd thing that nowhere else in the Bible does any say “I love you” to God? Tell me if I’m wrong. I don’t remember another place, and I used English-language searches of ESV and NIV to look for “I love you” without finding any text other than Psalm 18:1.
Speaking of English: the psalms of course were not written in English. They were written in Hebrew. Reading in English, I assumed that the verb here would be ahav. But it is not. Not here.
Ahav is the verb in Psalm 116:1, which in English versions begins “I love the Lord.” “Aha!” you say. “You said there was not another text, but here’s one.” But no, I remembered Psalm 116, but that’s third-person, and I meant there’s not another second-person [“you”] text addressed to God. And I don’t think there’s another third-person text either. Maybe you’ll think of 1 John, “We love him because he first loved us”—one of the first memory verses from the Beginner’s Department or earlier in my childhood Sunday School days. But that “him” may not even be in the text—manuscripts vary, and it seems that verse originally said simply “We love because he first loved us.”
So anyway Psalm 18:1 does not have ahav, the usual word for “love.” It has rakham. The verb rakham is related to the noun rekhem, which means “womb.” From that concrete, bodily connection Hebrew, which tends not to be a very abstract language (linguists might nail me for that, but that’s what most people think who study some Hebrew after studying English, Greek, Latin, etc.), draws a noun (by the simple expedient of pluralizing) and a verb (by changing the vowels) that are normally translated with English words like “compassion,” “affection,” even “pity.”
Which is why John Goldingay says the use of this verb in Psalm 18:1, addressed to God, “raises eyebrows.” Who is the Psalmist—and who am I, or who are you—to have compassion on God?
Fair question. And it’s clear from the context—just read the rest of verse 1 and verse 2—that what’s going on here is rather the reverse: God has had compassion on the Psalmist and has taken very good care of him. This whole Psalm—which Goldingay tells me is the longest testimony psalm, or psalm of thanksgiving, and the third longest of all the psalms—is an extended exclamation of gratitude for God’s deliverance.
And yet there is it, that word rakham—in the form arkhamkah. Now, if you want Hebrew lessons, I’m not the person to give them. Not good enough in this language. But that form matters because uses a different stem than other instances of rakham. I’ll get in trouble fast if I try to start explaining, so without explaining I’ll just repeat that when the verb is used elsewhere it’s in the piel (intensive active) or pual (the corresponding passive), and under those circumstances it is translated “have compassion” or “take pity” or “love” but here. Only here in the Hebrew Bible is rakham not in the piel or pual but in the qal—or the qal imperfect, which people seem to have started calling the yiqtol sometime after I had my introductory year of Hebrew grammar way back when.
And John Goldingay looks at that form and says, yeah, I’m not going to translate “have compassion” (which would violate the context, not to mention basic religious decency) or even “love” (like all the other English versions) but “I dedicate myself to you.” He does that both in his commentary (published in 2006) and in his OT translation, The First Testament (a decade later). Sometimes he changes his mind between the two, but not here. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it. And who am I to have a different opinion? No one. Goldingay is a giant of Hebrew Bible interpretation, and I am not even a gnat.
But . . . something in me wants to rebel. Something in me wants to ask: what would it mean for a lowly, frail mortal to look on the Lord God—the maker of heaven and earth and of us, the one to whom we look for rescue—with compassion? And is Jesus, in his encounter with the lapsed disciple Peter, really doing something contradictory to or divergent from the character of the God of the (Hebrew) Bible? Or is it not the case from the start—from the Garden, from the Exodus—that what our maker, redeemer, and lord wants from us above all is reciprocation, return, of that which motivates his (or her, or their—what pronoun can be adequate to this person!?) origination of us and engagement of us, from start to anticipated finish?
I don’t have standing to argue with Goldingay’s “I dedicate myself to you”—nothing wrong with that, and surely it’s included in the meaning of this verse. But I will stick with “I love you, Lord,” and resonating in my head will be “affection” and even (with fear and trembling) “compassion” and more. Not as achievement, but as aspiration, as a wondering glimpse of what the one who has given me everything I have might want in return from me.