For the director of music. Of David the servant of the LORD. He sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said: I love you, LORD, my strength. Psalm 18:1
Here David declares his love for God after the Lord delivered him from his enemy. Did you know that this is the only time in the Old Testament that someone says to God, “I love you”? The Old Testament saints are commanded many times to love the Lord with all their hearts, and they praise and worship and exalt Him a lot, but this is the only time someone is recorded saying “I love you.” I found that sad.
But the word translated love that David uses here in Psalm 18 is a different word than the commandment (Deut. 6:5). The word in Deuteronomy is ‘ahav from aheb, which means to have affection for, to like, love the beloved or a lover, love a friend. But the word David uses is ‘erachamka from racham, to have compassion on, to love, to have or show mercy on, have pity. The Pulpit Commentary notes that ‘erachamka “expresses the very tenderest affection, and is elsewhere never used to denote the love of man towards God, but only that of God towards man.”
Did you ever think of having compassion or pity for God? Sometimes I have felt sorry for Him, for all that He has gone through with us. For all the rejection and hatred and rebellion and mangling of souls, brutal oppression of each other and destruction of His perfect world. But I know my compassion does not, cannot, come close to the compassion God has for me. When God has compassion on us it is intense and active love. Chaim Bentorah says this about racham:
“The problem is that we have no good English word for racham. We use the word love, mercy, compassion but all fall short of the meaning of racham. The correct use of racham is the womb. When expressing an emotion, it is the love that a mother feels for her baby while in the womb or just emerges from the womb … It is love that is natural, unmolested, unchallenged and almost perfect. This is racham. A few years later when that child rebels, causes problems, wounds and breaks the mother’s heart, that love becomes ‘ahav which is an unconditional love, but it is not that perfect love that was unchallenged. As a human creature we cannot achieve such a high standard of love except at the birth of a child and even then you would have to be racham in a simple Qal form. It still falls short of racham in a Piel intensive [active] form. As much as you love God, with all your heart, soul and might you may reach the level of David to say ‘Erachamka na Adonai. But it still falls short of God’s racham for us.” — Chaim Bentorah1
Interestingly, there is also only one place in the New Testament where someone says “I love you” to our Lord. In the famous exchange on the beach (John 21:15-17), the risen Christ asks Peter three times “do you love me?” Peter affirms his love for Jesus three times. And in this case, as with David, Peter uses a surprising word.
Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?” He uses the word agapao the first two times, but phileo the last time. All three times Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I phileo you.” The difference between the two words is very similar to the difference between ahav and racham.
“[Phileo is f]rom philos; to be a friend to (fond of (an individual or an object)), i.e. Have affection for (denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while agapao is wider, embracing especially the judgment and the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety: the two thus stand related … the former being chiefly of the heart and the latter of the head.” — Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
Kenneth Wuest2 calls agapao “the noblest word in the Greek language.” I always got the impression that Peter was shirking the highest love, that he was admitting to Jesus that he couldn’t achieve the purest and noblest love, that the best he could do was phileo love. And that Jesus finally gave in to Peter’s good-enough phileo-love in a “Ok, we’ll work on it” kind of relenting. But I think what Peter was really saying was this: Yes, I know and will obey the commandment to love You. But my love for you goes deeper, I love You as a dear friend, I delight in You, You are my only joy, I cherish You above all else.”
“It [agapao] is an unselfish ‘love,’ ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question, conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration.” — W.E. Vine
It seems to me that this kind of love is, in a way, above agapao love as it goes from head knowledge and assent to the heart. We cannot think that phileo love is less than agapao. Paul startles when he writes to the Corinthians, “If anyone does not love (phileo) the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.“ (1 Corinthians 16:22)
I think, yes, that our joy and delight and love for Our Lord will always fall short of His for us, as His love is pure and perfectly unselfish. Unlike us, He does not have to wrestle down the soul, the “me”, the ego every day to achieve this kind of love. It is His glory. It is His essence. It is Himself. But Jesus confirmed that it is possible for us, in Him, to phileo-love when He asked Peter the third time (I’m sure smiling with His own phileo-love sparkling in His eyes) if Peter loved Him.
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love (phileo) me?” John 21:17
It seems to me that both of these kinds of love come from the grace of God. But ahav and agapao seems to be connected to faith and decision and obedience to the word and the will of God. Racham and phileo grow out of relationship. They come from walking with Him in the dark places, from experiencing His deliverance when we are overwhelmed, from failing and falling and being lifted back up into His embrace. We can know that though we, like the children who break the mother’s heart, have broken His heart over and over, yet He still racham-loves us, He still phileo-delights and joys in us. And our hearts respond as Peter’s.
“Yes, Lord, you know that I love (phileo) you.” John 21:16
… the Father himself loves (phileo) you because you have loved (phileo) me and have believed that I came from God. John 16:27
2Golden Nuggets from the Greek New Testament by Kenneth Wuest
Image, detail from Quiet Evening on the Georgian Bay by TranceMist https://flic.kr/p/ajQSCL