This is a rabbit trail type post from my series on the book of Jeremiah. It arises from some verses in Jeremiah 11 and 12 which use the word “beloved.” As I read these, I got to thinking about the ways this word is used in both the Old and New Testaments. The Song of Solomon of course came to mind immediately with verses like “I am my beloved’s and he is mine.” That’s one you hear a lot. And then there is the beloved disciple, aka John, in the New Testament. So I got to thinking about who is called beloved in the Bible and what conclusions we can draw from this use of this word.
So out came the Hebrew concordance for the Old Testament and the English one for the New (because my Greek has languished) and I began researching. Here is what I found out:
Beloved in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, there are two closely related roots which are used for “beloved.” It is worth noting that neither of these is the root I would call up if you asked me how to say “love” in biblical Hebrew; there is another word for that. The two roots used are very similar; they are ydd and dwd. Almost all Hebrew words are built off of triliteral (three-letter) consonantal roots. But y and w are something in between a vowel and a consonant; they have a tendency to be glided over or to drop out in various forms of the words. So what we are looking at here is two very, very similar roots.
By far the more common of the two is dwd. There are three main words that are formed off of this root in the Old Testament. The first and most prevalent is a name: David. Perhaps not too surprisingly if you know your OT history, “David” occurs over 1,000 times in the Hebrew Bible. I do not think this is insignificant. If you could pick one person out of the Bible, other than the disciple John who is openly called beloved, who is beloved by God, who would it be? For me it would be David. Not only is the meaning of his name “beloved” but he in particular seems to have a close and ongoing relationship with God. He is called “a man after God’s own heart” and I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this relationship went both ways. Just look at the Psalms, so many of which are attributed to David. Here is a man who knew God; struggled with God, yes, and sinned greatly too, but knew Him as few do.
I am going to skip down to the least common of the uses of dwd; it is the word “uncle.” This use occurs approximately 28 times. I don’t have a lot to say about this usage except to observe that the ancient Hebrews must have loved their uncles a lot. Kind of makes you think you should call yours up, huh?
Lastly, there is the third use of dwd, meaning “beloved” or “love.” This occurs 42 times (if I counted correctly) of which 39 are in the Song of Solomon. These all refer to romantic love between a man and a woman. Though I would say the Song of Solomon references are positive ones, the three usages outside of that book (Ezek. 16:8 and 23:17; Prov. 7:18) seem to use the word in a negative way to refer to the love of a harlot or the like.
The other root, ydd, occurs only about ten times. While its uses are not radically different from those of dwd, there is an added element here. Whereas with dwd, the beloved was, at least in the plain sense of the text, one human loved by another human, here we begin to see the use of beloved for people loved by God. The word is used generally to refer to God’s people as a whole in Isaiah and Jeremiah:
“Let me sing for my beloved, my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” (Isa. 5:1; ESV)
“Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds?” (Jer. 11:14-15a)
“I have forsaken my house; I have abandoned my heritage;
I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies.” (Jer. 12:7)
In these instances, Israel (or Judah as the case may be) is the beloved and God is the lover. The metaphor of marriage for God’s relationship with His people is found throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, Israel is often depicted as an unfaithful wife — this is the whole premise of the book, and life, of Hosea — whereas in the New Testament the Church is the pure white bride of Christ. Despite the differences, the husband/wife image persists.
In other OT references, the designation of beloved is applied to either one member or one segment of the nation. In Deuteronomy, Benjamin alone is singled out:
“Of Benjamin he said, ‘The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety.
The High God surrounds him all day long, and dwells between his shoulders.'” (Deut. 33:12)
In its context, this seems to refer to the tribe of Benjamin, not the individual.
In the Book of Psalms we find:
“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Ps. 127:2)
“That your beloved ones may be delivered,
give salvation by your right hand and answer us!” (Ps. 60:5; cf. Ps. 108:6)
The first reference is to a singular beloved though not to a specific person — it could be any member of God’s people. The second could refer to the whole people or could be taken to apply just to David and his followers.
Beloved in the New Testament
My examination of the New Testament uses of beloved will not be quite so in-depth (mainly because of my own deficiencies in Greek). As you may have heard in a sermon, Greek has a fewwords for love. The one I looked at is agape. I found seven cases in which Jesus is called the beloved of God the Father. The most well-known occasion is Jesus’ baptism. In Matthew’s account, we read:
“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 3:16-17)
The other references, if you care to look at them, are: Matt. 12:18; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7; Luke 3:22; 9:35).
There is one other reference to Jesus as the beloved in the context of a parable. In Luke 20, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner whose tenants rebel against them. As a last measure, he sends his beloved son (v. 13) whom they also beat and kill. Of course, we know that the owner represents God the Father and the son is Jesus and the tenants are God’s people, the nation of Israel. It is intriguing that the vineyard metaphor is used here along with the term beloved just as it was in Isaiah.
John uses some form of agape far more than any other New Testament writer. Of course, if you are familiar with his epistles, this will come as no surprise. It occurs more than 60 times in his various books. Most often in the NT, in John’s writings and elsewhere, beloved is used as a term of endearment for the Christians being addressed, either individually or corporately. A couple of examples will suffice:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now . . . ” (I John 3:2a)
“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ . . .” (Jude 1:1)
“. . . Greet my beloved Epaenetus . . . ” (Rom. 16:5)
“That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord . . .” (I Cor. 4:17)
“As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” (Rom. 9:25)
[This last reference does not seem to be a direct quote from Hosea which does not itself use the word beloved though it does say “I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’” (Hos. 2:23).]
It is actually quite striking relative to the Old Testament usages how often an individual is called beloved in the New Testament. Of these, John is particular is singled out (albeit in his own gospel account) and called “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (cf. John 19:26; 21:7, 20).
But what is the significance of all this? Can we learn anything from how the Bible uses the word beloved?
My first thought as I began delving into this topic was to distinguish between verses in which beloved is used in a romantic or man/woman context (like all the Song of Solomon references) and those which are not what we would call romantic, such as when a man like John is called beloved by God. And while we could use these categories, I also think that there is somewhat of a false dichotomy here. The fact is that the church is the bride of Christ so when God’s people, or members of that group, are called beloved, it is not really a different use but just an extension of the romantic use. In truth, though, we should view it the other way; it is not that God uses our romantic relationships as metaphors for His love, but that God created our romantic relationships, and marriage particularly, to mirror His love for us.
Probably the most striking thing to me is how the use of beloved changes from the Old to New Testaments. Though David, by virtue of his name, is literally “beloved” in the OT, no other person is called beloved by God. The nation is, or course, but even this is often negative as in “I loved you, but you did not love me.”Compare this to the NT in which beloved is thrown around left and right. The readers of the various epistles are addressed as beloved by many writers and specific people are called beloved too.
Why the change? I think we can draw a couple of conclusions (as always, based on other things we know from the Bible too). First off, in the OT God views His people more corporately; it is the nation that is the beloved. In the NT, while the church takes the place of the nation, there is also an added, more personal element that allows the writers to call all believers as well as specific people “beloved.” Secondly, the negative aspect is gone in the NT; no longer is there the unfaithfulness which Israel was so often called to account for. We know, of course, that this is because of the work of Christ. There is joy in the relationship between the Lover (God) and the beloved (His people) now and this comes through in the text just as the yearning and disappointment that God so often felt in His unfaithful Israel came through in the OT texts.