God’s Comparable Loves
When the love of God is discussed, we often speak of his love being incomparable, for it is like no other. God’s love for his people in Christ is eternal (Ephesians 1:4), primary and initiatory (I John 4:9-10), supremely sacrificial (Romans 5:8), unconquerable (Romans 8:28-32), and immeasurable (Psalm 57:10). God’s love as described in Scripture is in contrast to man’s weak and sin-choked love, and thus is without equal or even close rival.
Yet within God’s incomparable love, the Scriptures make distinctions regarding God’s affection for objects of that love. He does love certain entities more than others.
The psalmist declares this in Psalm 87:2 when he says, “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.” This verse is a statement of God’s comparable loves.
That God loves certain things more than others should not surprise us. In the Trinity, the Scriptures testify that the love the Father has for the Son is greater than all else, for the Father and Son have loved each other eternally in ways beyond our comprehension and experience (see John 17:20-26). Yes, his disciples are called to share in that love, and even to experience, in the words of Christ to his Father, that “you loved them even as you loved me.” Yet that does not negate the obvious truth that to be loved as the Father loves the Son is not the same as being loved equal to the Son, for the first is wondrous but the latter blasphemous.
On a human level, as those made in God’s image, we distinguish our loves. As a man, I am commanded to love my wife (Ephesians 5:25) and to love my enemy (Matthew 5:44). Yet certainly the former vastly supercedes the latter. I know God does not expect me to love my enemy in the same ways and measures as I love my wife! In the righteousness of Christ we learn to love others in manners fitting to our relationship to them. The Lord who has given us all the commands of love makes distinctions in his love also.
The psalmist’s declaration that God loves Zion more than Jacob’s dwelling places is a statement of comparison, not opposition. “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.” In speaking of Zion, the psalmist is picturing the holy city of Jerusalem on the mountains (Psalm 87:1), the place where the temple resided that David prepared for and Solomon constructed. Clearly Zion in this verse is Jerusalem, for he calls it “the city of God” in verse 3. In the days of Solomon God Himself said Jerusalem was “the city where I have chosen for Myself to put My name” (I Kings 11:36). This love expressed for the holy city is in comparison to the dwelling places of Jacob. The psalmist is referring to the families of the nation of Israel and their homes. God loves covenant families. God loved the families that descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses told Israel, “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (Deuteronomy 7:9). The Old and New Testaments are a testimony to God’s love of families. Yet it was the love for the family of families as gathered in Jerusalem that had the special place in the heart of God.
This declaration of Psalm 87 finds its ultimate, prophetic fulfillment in the church. Spurgeon says:
The mystical teaching of these words is plain. God delights in the prayers and praises of Christian families and individuals, but he has a special eye to the assemblies of the faithful. He has a special delight in their devotions in their church capacity.
Again, this statement is not to denigrate families. The Lord loves families. The gospel at Pentecost was preached to families, as Peter cried out, “These promises are for you and your children.” The Spirit-filled apostle was thinking of families as he preached, for he know that God keeps covenant through families that honor him. What blessings and love He gives to families who walk together in Christ! Yet, it must be said, he loves the gates of Zion, the church, even more. He called those families on the day of Pentecost to repent, be baptized, and to be added to the church, for, as we are told elsewhere, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
This truth then forms the basis for understanding the remainder of this psalm and provides a foundation for some of the more difficult verses regarding the obedience of disciples in the New Testament. The remainder of the psalm reads:
Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.
I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me;
Behold, Philistia and Tyre with Ethiopia:
“This one was born there.”
But of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her”;
And the Most High Himself will establish her.
The Lord will count when He registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”
Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say,
“All my springs of joy are in you.”
As the prophet sees people from the near and distant ancient enemies of Israel – Egypt (called Rahab here), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia – having their birthplace and delight be Jerusalem, he is speaking of the nations of the earth being born again under gospel preaching and entering into the church. As this fulfills the death and life work of Christ, this brings a supreme heart joy to God, causing the angels to sing, the heavens to shout, and the earth to rejoice.
As this love of God’s is even greater than his love for family, so should ours be. That’s why Jesus said such hard things as “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Serving him in and through the church calls us, at certain times and right occasions, to make sacrifices so great to bring the gospel to the enemies of Christ that it could look to others as if we not only do not love, but hate, our families. Here we speak not of an idolatrous love of a church position where our own self-importance is bolstered by hyperactive congregational involvement to the neglect of familial duties. Rather, we mean such things as an imprisoned pastor who refuses to recant; a missionary who has spent years in a desolate land; or, on a smaller, more applicable scale for most of us, a faithful servant who has to forego significant time with family, family occasions where he would otherwise be present, or positions that would have benefited his loved ones because of his service in reaching the lost with the gospel. In these cases the real reason for his actions is not that he loves his family so little, but that he loves the church and the One who died for it so greatly.
May the Lord help us reflect the scales of his comparable loves.