If believing in one God is the 'backbone' of all monotheistic religions, what is the 'heart' of true worship? Wherein is the well spring that motivates godfearing people to have an ongoing friendship with God? What is the secret of being in love with God? (i.e. gazing adoringly on his beauty)
One way of developing this kind of intimacy is to look at the example of the psalmist David, whom God called “a man after my own heart”. As we read his songs of praise (Psalms, Zabur) it is apparent that David spent much time meditating on God.
We also see that David encouraged himself by recalling the signs and mighty wonders that God did in the past. David was familiar with the story of Moses – where God drowned the entire Egyptian army and saved the Israelites. No doubt modern readers are familiar with the Qur'anic account of God's miraculous rescue. (Surah 2:49,50)
May I invite you to take a few moments and reflect on Psalm 27, a meditation of David. It begins by describing a perilous situation, not unlike what Moses faced. David described how he faced the threat of a mighty enemy army surrounding him. Instead of being afraid, he confidently affirmed that the “LORD is my light and my salvation”. Faced with this perilous situation, David focused his affections and trust on God, “The one thing I ask of the LORD – the thing I seek most – is to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, delighting in the LORD'S perfections and meditating in his Temple.” A few sentences later, David prayed earnestly, “O God of my salvation ... hold me close”.
Let us not overlook this word 'salvation' which the psalmist mentions twice in these verses. It reminds us of the song Moses wrote when the LORD vanquished the Egyptian army in front of their very eyes at the Red Sea. Moses sang, “I will sing to the LORD for he is highly exalted ... The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” (Exodus 15:1,2 NIV, bold font added for emphasis) Faced with the very real prospect of death, the Israelites experienced God's intervention.
Having rescued them, God expected them to acknowledge him as Savior and never to forget this milestone event in their history. Not long after this momentous rescue, God provided the Israelites with a charter spelling out the core principles on which their nation was founded (the 10 commandments).
Godfearing people know that the first (and foremost) command contains two truths – the oneness and saving power of God! These truths are like two sides of a coin. The first command reads, “I am the LORD your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me.” (Exodus 20:2,3)
The second half of this commandment is often quoted by itself giving the impression that this is the entire command. However, when the first half is overlooked, one fails to appreciate God's saving power as we should. Furthermore, glossing over the first half of the command diminishes our motivation of thankfulness and love toward God.
Love of God
Moses made it clear that God's intervention on Israel's behalf showed his love for the Israelites. We see this in Deuteronomy 4:32-38,
Now search all of history, from the time God created people on the earth until now... Has any other god dared to take a nation for himself out of another nation by means of trials, miraculous signs, wonders, war, a strong hand, a powerful arm, and terrifying acts? Yet that is what the LORD your God did for you in Egypt right before your eyes. He showed you these things so you would know that the LORD is God and there is no other... Because he loved your ancestors, he chose to bless their descendants, and he personally brought you out of Egypt with a great display of power.
The three principles of divine oneness, saving power and love are inextricably interwoven in this epic story. Hundreds of years after Moses, another prophet reminded the Israelites of these three principles, saying,
When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt... But I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Saviour except me. (Hosea 11:1;13:4)
In the same way that Moses linked God's saving power with his love for the Israelites, so also did Hosea. In fact, love is mentioned 22 times in the short book of Hosea! Some of these instances seem to indicate that God does not love Israel because they forgot their Maker and their leaders rebelled (Hosea 8:14; 9:15). However, in the final analysis, Hosea predicted “that the Lord still loves Israel, even though the people have turned to other gods and love to worship them.” It is clear that ultimately, God's plan and purpose is to “make you my wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion. I will be faithful to you and make you mine, and you will finally know me as the LORD.” (bold font added for emphasis, Hosea 2:19,20)
God's pledge of eternal love to Israel is further clarified in chapter three, where Hosea prophecies that
Israel will go for a long time without a king or prince, and without sacrifices, sacred pillars, priests or even idols! But afterward the people will return and devote themselves to the LORD their God and to David's descendant, their king. In the last days, they will tremble in awe of the LORD and of his goodness. (Hosea 3:4,5)
The prophet Hosea ends his book with this appeal,
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for your sins have brought you down. Bring your confessions and return to the Lord. Say to him, “Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us so that we may offer you our praises. Assyria cannot save us, nor can our war-horses. Never again will we say to the idols we have made, 'You are our gods.' No, in you alone do the orphans find mercy.” The LORD says, “Then I will heal you of your faithlessness; my love will know no bounds, for my anger will be gone forever.” (Hosea 14:1-4)
Notice how Israel admits “Assyria cannot save us, nor can our war-horses.” The only one who can save is God. But one might ask, “Is the LORD only concerned about saving Israel?” Certainly not. The scripture tells us his purpose is to bring his salvation to the whole world. (Isaiah 45:21-23; Jonah 4:2)
God loved us first, so now we can love him
The prophet Moses emphasized that we cannot please the LORD by merely believing in his oneness. We must also obey him out of a loving heart. As it is written,
And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the LORD your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul. And you must always obey the LORD'S commands ... for your own good. (Deuteronomy 10:12)
Moses taught us to love God, but so also did Abraham. We read how God tested Abraham by commanding him to take his son “Isaac whom you love so much ... and sacrifice him as a burnt offering.” (Genesis 22:8) We see from Abraham's example that loving God means we must obey him. Abraham's test unfolded in a peculiar way, but in the end, it showed God is our provider. In fact the Lord provided a ransom so that Abraham's son was spared from undergoing a terrible death. Not only so, Abraham prophesied that God will provide a lamb. If you take the time to carefully explore this prophecy you will find it bears testimony to the matchless love of God. I encourage you to read an article explaining this, entitled, Isaac: The Reflection of the Father's Love.
Elsewhere this same author (John Gilchrist) writes, “It is hardly surprising that the Qur'an has so little to say about the love of God when it denies that God gave his Son to redeem us from our sins. It has denied the greatest manifestation of this love that could ever have been given by God to men. As Jesus said: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends". (John 15:13 NIV) This is the greatest and most abiding form of love – love that is as strong as death (Song of Solomon 8:6) and cannot be overcome by it. Such love was revealed in Jesus Christ when he willingly laid down his life: "When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end". (John 13:1, NIV)” (*)
We gain a glimpse of God as Redeemer when God ransomed Abraham's son by providing a ram. Let us also bear in mind that the Torah of Moses repeatedly uses the terms redeem (or redeemer) in relation to God. In fact, this redemption theme is also found in the writings of Hosea, Job and Asaph (Hosea 3:2; Job 19:25-27; Psalm 49:15). It seems to me more than coincidental that the Qur'an acknowledges Allah ransomed Abraham's son with a momentous sacrifice.
On the other hand, many Muslims are puzzled to learn why their scholars did not include the divine name Al Faadi (Redeemer) among the 99 beautiful names of Allah. If you want to study the divine names Redeemer and Savior more carefully you will find these two online articles helpful (1,2).
Did you know that loving God is a favorite topic among mystical Muslims? (Sufis) Some Sufi songs eloquently express a longing for intimacy with God. For example, A.J. Arberry in his book Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (p. 53) quotes Dhu'l-Nun,
I die, and not yet dies in me
The ardour of my love for Thee,
Nor hath Thy Love, my only goal,
Assuaged the fever of my soul.
To Thee alone my spirit cries;
In Thee my whole ambition lies,
And still Thy wealth is far above
The poverty of my small love.
I turn to Thee in my request,
And seek in Thee my final rest;
To Thee my loud lament is brought,
Thou dwellest in my secret thought.
Speaking of songs, did you know that the main song book in the Bible is called the Psalms? As you might expect, love is a common theme – not only God's love to humans but also visa versa. It is interesting to see many verses telling of God expressing his love by rescuing or redeeming someone. Again, it comes as no surprise that the psalmist responds in kind to God's love. We see this in Psalm 116:1-6;
I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath! Death wrapped its ropes around me; the terrors of the grave overtook me... Then I called on the name of the LORD: “Please Lord save me.” How kind the LORD is! How good he is! So merciful this God of ours! The LORD protects those of childlike faith; I was facing death and he saved me... He has saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
In Psalm 68:19,20 David likens God to a loving father carrying a child. He exclaims,
Praise the LORD; praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms. Our God is a God who saves! The Sovereign LORD rescues us from death.
In the Torah Moses also describes God using a similar metaphor, saying, “you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son all the way you went until you reached this place.” (Deuteronomy 1:31). Other prophets used this same word picture (see Hosea 11:3). Again we read in Isaiah 46:3,4;
Listen to me, descendants of Jacob ... I have cared for you ever since you were born. Yes I carried you before you were born. I will be your God throughout your lifetime – until your hair is white with age. I made you and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.
For many centuries the divine attributes, Savior and Redeemer, were a fitting way of expressing adoration and praise to God. Today, however, Muslims feel uncomfortable and awkward using such names. Our prayer is that they will gain a true appreciation of these names. Then they will be able to freely worship God Almighty as Father. As far as I can see, nowhere in the Qur'an is Allah called Father. It seems that Jesus Christ regarded this title as being very significant. For he said, “The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.” (John 4:23; Matthew 6:9)
If we look back to Israel's birth as a nation, we see the fatherhood of God in a metaphorical sense. Earlier we read in Hosea 11:1 how God called his son Israel out of Egypt. In a similar way, Jesus the Messiah used this metaphor in a parable that pictures God as Father. The heart of this parable is love – a fitting way to conclude this meditation.
The story reaches a turning point when the son repents. But that's not all, this happy ending wouldn't have been possible without something else! When the wayward son “was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20, bold font added for emphasis)
One final word: Did you notice that Isaiah's prophecy concludes with 'save' – another important thread that was woven into this meditation. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves, “How does the father in this parable 'save' his prodigal son?” The answer is in the conclusion: My son “was dead and has come back to life! He was lost but now he is found!” (Luke 15:32)
Jesus saw his life calling – his mission from God – as being “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). On the one hand, saving the lost is about forgiving sinners but, ultimately, it has to do with saving people from death. This is why the father in the parable spoke of his son's restoration as coming back to life from the dead!
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All Biblical quotes, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the New Living Translation.
Appendix: Does the Bible link God's love, salvation and redemption?
A simple answer to this is found in Psalm 18 (ESV) which is introduced with these words, "when the LORD rescued him from the hand of all his enemies". Then in verses 49 & 50 we read, "I will praise you O Lord among the nations, and sing praise to your name. Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever."
The following verses also link God's love and his salvation. They are just a sampling taken from the first 50 Psalms. Many other verses could have been added. 6:4; 13:5; 17:7; 31:16,21-23; 33:18,19; 40:10,16; 44:3,26.