The Fatherhood of God in the Old Testament

There are several instances in the Old Testament where God is called the Father of the Jewish nation and to the special representatives of the nation, David and Solomon. The chosen nation owed its origin and continued existence to His miraculous power and special care. As their Father, He loved, pitied, disciplined, rebuked and required the obedience of His people.

The Father of special representatives of the nation

a) Of Solomon

Several scriptures may be cited: ‘I will be his father, and he shall be my son’, 2 Sam. 7. 14; these words are recited in Hebrews chapter 1 verse 5, where they are applied to the Lord Jesus as proof that He is superior to angels, but initially the application is to Solomon; ‘I will be his father, and he shall be my son’, 1 Chr. 17. 13. If verse 12 speaks of Solomon as a sovereign with a throne, verse 13 refers to him as a son with a Father; ‘he shall be my son, and I will be his father’, 1 Chr. 22. 10; ‘I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father’, 28. 6. Solomon was not only chosen ‘to sit upon the throne’, v. 5, but he was chosen ‘to be my son’.

b) Of David

The Lord promises the same fatherly care to David himself, ‘He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father’, Ps. 89. 26. However, nowhere in the Old Testament do we read of David addressing God as ‘Father’.

The Father of the nation

a) In the Pentateuch

The first passage where God presents Himself as the Father of the nation is Exodus chapter 4 verses 22 and 23. Moses is told to say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn’, v. 22. The command to Pharaoh was, ‘Let my son go’; the threat accompanying refusal was, ‘I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn’, v. 23. Israel was in a relationship with the Lord so close that it is expressed in terms of sonship. But more than a son, Israel is ‘my firstborn’, a position of honour, normally held by the firstborn son, the inheritor of the birthright.

There are four allusions to the fatherhood of God in Deuteronomy. In the opening chapter, Moses uses a metaphor, ‘thou hast seen how that the Lord thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son’, v. 31; this had been their wilderness experience. Then Moses compares the wilderness experience of the nation with a man disciplining his son, ‘as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee’, 8. 5. Later, Moses clearly states, ‘Ye are the children [“sons” JND] of the Lord your God’, 14. 1. In the context, Moses is warning against idolatry and against practising pagan rituals of mourning the dead. Those of Israel, in special relationship, are distinct from the nations. Here the plural, ‘ons’ is employed; Jehovah was not only the Father of the nation, but also to each person in the nation.

b) In the Major Prophets

In the second part of his prophecy, Isaiah alludes to the fatherhood of God to the nation. He speaks of the love of the Lord for Israel, ‘I have loved thee’, Isa. 43. 4. The Lord then expresses His desire to gather them again from the foreign nations, to bring them back to Himself, ‘bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth’, v. 6. This projects our thoughts on to a coming day when the remnant of the nation will be regathered.

It is interesting to observe that, in Isaiah chapter 63, several fatherly features of God are brought before us: lovingkindness and goodness, ‘I will mention the loving kindnesses of the Lord … and the great goodness toward the house of Israel’, v. 7; love and pity, ‘in his love and in his pity he redeemed them’, v. 9; providing rest and guidance, ‘the Spirit of the Lord caused him to rest: so didst thou lead thy people’, v. 14; showing tenderness and compassion, ‘the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me’, v. 15. It is in this context that we read, ‘he said, Surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was [“became” JND] their Saviour’, v. 8. Here the nation calls upon Him as their Father, ‘Doubtless thou art our father … thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer’, v. 16. Then, as the nation casts itself upon the mercy of God, they say, ‘But now, O Lord, thou art our father’, 64. 8. In His love, He could restore and bless them.

The fatherhood of God is also seen in the prophecy of Jeremiah. In chapter 3 of the book, Jehovah is twice called Father and three times the nation is addressed as children (sons). Thus, the Lord says, ‘Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My father?’ v. 4. The nation came with the right language, but that was all, for they are then accused of saying, ‘thou art the guide of my youth’ – these were empty words. As was so often the case, the nation was right ‘in lip’, but far from right in life. The plea of Jehovah was ‘Turn [“return” JND], O backsliding children’, v. 14. The promise of God was clear, ‘I will take you … and I will bring you to Zion’; however, such a promise was dependent upon Israel’ confession, ‘Only acknowledge thine iniquity’,

v. 13. The verses that follow tell of the future restoration of Israel, but verses 19 and 20 give God’ interjection which has been translated, ‘I myself said, “How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land, the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.” I thought you would call me “Father” and not turn away from following me’, NIV. As a father, Jehovah desired the very best for His children. Consequently, there is a further appeal, ‘Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings’, v. 22.

There are two later references to the fatherhood of God in Jeremiah’s prophecy. In the earlier part of chapter 31, there are declarations of God’s love and His loving kindness, ‘Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee’, v. 3, together with reference to the joy of the nation at their regathering. Then the Lord says, ‘for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn’, v. 9. The term ‘firstborn’ is here transferred to Ephraim, marking him out as the object of special favour of the Lord. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom will evidently be the recipients of particular blessing in the national restoration. Later in the chapter, the Lord says, ‘Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child?’, v. 20 – His love for Ephraim being beautifully expressed. It should be acknowledged that, in verses 9 and 20, ‘Ephraim’ may be used as a synonym for the whole nation.

c) In the Minor Prophets

The opening verses of the prophecy of Hosea set forth the conditions that pertained in Israel and Judah at the time of writing; however, in verse 10 of chapter 1, our thoughts are projected on to a day anticipating Israel’ ultimate future. The word of the Lord through Hosea is, ‘it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God’. Darby has simply, ‘sons of the living God’.

This passage in Hosea is referred to on two occasions in the New Testament where both Paul and Peter apply the blessing to believers of this present age, ‘As he saith also in Osee … in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people: there shall they be called the children of the living God’, Rom. 9. 25, 26. Peter writes, ‘Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God’, 1 Pet. 2. 10. It is important to emphasize that both Paul and Peter here are using the Old Testament as a matter of application, and not of interpretation.

In chapters 11 to 14 of the book, the emphasis is upon the love of God; Hosea is no longer able to dwell upon the plight which the people had brought on themselves. He recalls the words of Exodus chapter 4 and writes, ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt’, Hos. 11. 1. This word of Hosea found its fulfilment centuries later in the person of Christ, ‘he [Joseph] took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: and was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son’s, Matt. 2. 14, 15.

In the opening chapter of Malachi’s prophecy, we find the same theme as in Hosea chapter 11; God has loved His people, but they have not acknowledged His love. The Lord of hosts then says through the prophet, ‘A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour?’ Mal. 1. 6. The word ‘honour’ means to highly esteem, to be deserving of respect and obedience.

The divine complaint was against the people as a whole and, in chapter 2 verses 10 to 16, Malachi deals with the outstanding sins of his day. The first sin mentioned is that of dealing treacherously, every man against his brother; false dealing had abounded among the people. The first truth which the prophet cites as proof to expose the evil of their conduct is their common standing before God on the ground of His covenant, ‘Have we not all one father?’ Mal. 2. 10.

As we come towards the end of the prophecy, the Lord of hosts refers to a day when judgement would be poured out on a guilty world, but He promised that the remnant who had maintained their allegiance to Him would be spared, ‘I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him’, Mal. 3. 17. Thus, the last image of God as Father in the Old Testament ends with words of hope and encouragement.

While the Fatherhood of God appears to be a minor theme in the Old Testament, it becomes a major one in the New Testament.

Further reading 

  • Goran Medved, The Fatherhood of God, The Evangelical Journal of Theology, Vol. X No. 2, 2016, pp. 203-214.

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