It’s a difficult topic to discuss. I don’t want to say things that are incorrect. But more importantly, I especially don’t want to utter any slanderous statements about God and his love. God is love (1 John 4:8)—wonderfully so. It will take forever for the saints to understand the infinite love of God (Ephesians 3:19). I, a small mind, cannot fully grasp the grandness and grandeur of God’s love. I look forward to forever swimming in that ocean.
Yet while reading the Bible, we come across some strange statements—remember, from God himself!—that describe God’s love. They’re declarations that I know I wouldn’t make if I were to write a treatise on the love of God. These statements particularize his love. And they do so to such an extreme that it can be jarring.
'Love' Shown by Comparing 'Hate'
The verses in particular I’m thinking of appear in Malachi 1. It’s a passage which is also quoted by Paul in Romans 9:13, so it isn’t just something in the Old Testament. Not only is the verse bold, but as you’ll see, it is very clear since it occurs in a dialogue specifically about how God loves. God tells his people, “I have loved you.” His people ask back, “How have you loved us?” Then comes the jarring statement about God’s love from God himself. Here’s the two verses:
“‘I have love you,’ says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ ‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert’” (Malachi 1:2-3)
There's the ‘extreme’ and ‘jarring’ which I'm speaking of. You cannot get more extreme than comparing ‘love’ to ‘hate.’ You cannot get much more jarring than saying God ‘hates’ some people! But God decides to speak thus to get his point about his love across to his people. So what is his point?
Apparently God wanted his people to know how much they were loved by comparing how much he didn’t love others. This is explicitly his tactic. (See why this is something that I would never think of myself!) After declaring his love for them, they ask, “But how do you love us?” And he responds basically by saying, “Do you see those who are so similar to you, those who are from Jacob’s line as well? Do you see how in yourself you are no different? Yet, I love you, and I hate them. I have shown this by not treating them the same way I treat you.” A theology-rattling idea to say the least!
Paul’s Use of God’s Particular Love
The apostle Paul evidently was familiar with this type of reasoning about God’s love. He used this verse in a similar way.
In Romans 9, Paul’s main concern is discussing the sovereign choice of God in carrying out his promise. In order to do this, he wants to prove that God alone chooses the recipients of salvation. So to begin his argument, Paul first quotes from Genesis 25 where Rebekah is told sovereignly by God that Jacob will receive the promise, not Esau: “the older [Esau] will serve the younger [Jacob]” (Romans 9:12; Genesis 25:23). Paul’s point here is that it was up to God’s choice, and God’s choice alone. The promise fell to Jacob, not Esau. Why? “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue” (Romans 9:11).
But what concerns us here is how Paul then applies this idea of salvation-choosing (or election) to God’s love. After showing that Jacob was chosen and Esau wasn’t, Paul quotes the Malachi 1 verse. This is Paul's Scripture basis for it all: “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Romans 9:13).
So in Paul’s mind, God not only chooses some and not others, but he loves some and not others (at least in this sense of ‘love’). This particular love of God, in Paul’s mind, is the root of his choosing. God loves some people, and doesn’t love others like this. In fact, in contrast, he ‘hates’ others. (Once again, this is quite jarring.)
A Needed Category
I want to sit underneath the Bible, learning what God teaches in it rather than imposing on it my ideas. I believe all genuine Christians have this same posture. And it is because of this that I am convinced that many of us (myself certainly included) need a new category when we think about God’s love. And it is a category given to us explicitly from God himself.
We need to somehow see that a certain aspect God’s love is displayed in how we treats us in comparison to others. It initially sounds so harsh, prideful, and unbiblical to say it like this, but this is Malachi’s point, this is Paul’s point, and so, it is God’s point. God loves his people uniquely. We all agree to this. But what is a little jarring is that he displays that unique love in unique treatment—treatment he does not give to those outside his people (to those he shockingly ‘hates’).
In sum, we see God’s love in how he uniquely, sovereignly, lovingly treats us—and not others.
Kill the Pride!
Now even as I write this, I feel the sense to scream at any rising pride. Oh may this not lead to any sort of better-than-others haughtiness! Although the biblical doctrine of God’s love may be multifaceted, the Bible is singular and clear as day about pride: God hates it and opposes it (eg. James 4:6). So one thing is for sure: God uniquely loving us and not loving others is not to lead to pride!
The contexts of Malachi 1 and Romans 9 unmistakably show this as well. In Malachi 1, the whole chapter is God rebuking his people. In Romans 9, Paul is making the point that their receiving of the promise isn’t due to anything in them, but only due to God’s choice. In both cases, the reason God brings up this unique love is to humble his people, not fuel any pride.
Can't Be Haughty
But how can this actually be humbling? If it is anything, it seems far from that! Yet it surprisingly becomes humbling when we realize that yes, God loves and treats his people uniquely, but it is not because of them. In fact, it is in spite of them. That’s why Malachi 1 is full of rebukes. That’s why Romans 9 is about God choosing sinful people, even before they were even born. It’s all up to God and his sovereign love. It doesn’t have to do with the greatness or loveliness of those he loves (see Deuteronomy 7:6-8; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
This, therefore, is how it is humbling: in every instance where he treats us (his people his particularly loves) uniquely, we realize we deserve the opposite. He loves us, and ‘hates’ others, but we should be treated just like them! With this foundation set, every time we read a verse about God’s unique love for his people, or every time we recognize his unique care for us, or every time we hear of the loving future he has for us, we won’t be able to have pride in ourselves. Instead, we will be amazed at the love we receive but don’t deserve. Realizing how we should receive the opposite, we will be humbled, not made haughty. We can’t boast in ourselves; we can only gladly bow to him. We can’t gloat; we can only glory in grace.
Be Built Up
So it is humbling; but it is also edifying. And herein lies somewhat of a paradox. The definition of haughtiness is to be high-minded. The definition of edification is to be built up. So how can it be humbling and edifying?
We are built up in him, because of how he loves us. And we are humbled concerning ourselves, in how underserving we are. In short, we are worthless (humbling), but we are loved (edifying).
This is God's Good Aim
This, I believe, is why God tells his people that he uniquely loves them and not others. As shown, it isn’t because God wants to fuel pride (may it never be!). But he does want his people to know how much they’re distinctly, uniquely loved. Verses upon verses show this. In fact, almost all the famous verses about God’s love in the Bible are about his love for his particular people. He, for our good, aims to get this across to us.
As we meditate on this more and more, as we see how much he’s lovingly done for us—and how we deserve not only none of it, but the opposite of it—we see that love shining ever more brightly.