Why does God do what he does? What is his motivation for his plans, purposes, and actions? Is God motivated primarily by love? God’s love is certainly emphasized in Scripture. John 3:16, the most famous verse in the bible, speaks of God’s love.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)
Also, who doesn’t like 1 John 4:7-10, especially the end of verse 8 where it says, “God is love.”
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:7-10 ESV)
Those verses should settle the matter right? God does what he does because he loves us. I even once heard someone say that John 3:16 sums up the character of God. However, there is a problem here. We can’t interpret all of Scripture based on the fact that God is love. We must interpret “God is love” based on all that Scripture reveals about God. Does the rest of Scripture present God’s love as his only or primary motivation for his actions? Absolutely not.
The 36th chapter of Ezekiel presents a very different reason why God does what he does, for the sake of his holy name. The Israelites had brought dishonor to the name of Lord by their disobedience, so God used pagan nations to bring judgment upon his people. The people of Judah and Israel were killed, starved, and exiled by powerful nations. These nations were acting on God’s behalf, but the nations did not recognize this. It appeared to them that their gods were more powerful than the Lord since, in their eyes, the Lord was not able to protect his people from their attack. The Lord’s people were taken from the land he had given them.
Note verses 16 through 21 of Ezekiel chapter 36.
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds. Their ways before me were like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual impurity. So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed in the land, for the idols with which they had defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. In accordance with their ways and their deeds I judged them. But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, ‘These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.’ But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came.” (Ezekiel 36:16-21 ESV)
The pagan nations said, “These are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land.” The clear reasoning for Babylon (and previously Assyria), who conquered the Lord’s people, was there was nothing God could do about Babylon’s conquest. Because of this God said wherever his people were taken captive they profaned his holy name. They didn’t just profane his name but his “holy name.” Holiness is tied to being set apart. Because of the exile the pagan nations did not see the God of the Israelites as being different (or set apart) from any other god. To the nations there was nothing special about the God of Israel.
God said he was going to correct this thinking. Verses 23 and 24 say
Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:22-23 ESV)
God does not say he is going to act because he loves his people (though he certainly does). He says he is going to vindicate the holiness of his great name. God wanted to demonstrate he is the only true and living God. He is set apart from every other so-called god. As Ezekiel says at the end of the chapter in verse 38, “Then they will know that I am the LORD.” God is concerned with his glory. Look at God’s word to his people in Isaiah chapter 48.
For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.
(Isaiah 48:9-11 ESV)
Again, the Lord says he is acting for his own sake. In this instance he is restraining his anger, but the point is he is doing this for his own sake, for his own glory. He will not give his glory to anyone else.
In verses 24 through 30 of Ezekiel 36 the Sovereign One spells out his actions to vindicate his holiness. God says over and over, “I will.”
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. (Ezekiel 36:24-30 ESV)
Then in verse 31 God says, “you will.”
Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. (Ezekiel 36:31 ESV)
God acts to bring repentance. He does this by giving his people a new heart and a new spirit. Note that the people do not get a new heart and new spirit because they repent. They repent because God enables them to repent by giving them a new heart and a new spirit. His proclamation of “you will” follows his proclamation of “I will.” Also, notice God said “you will” not “you may” or “you might.”
Jesus referenced this passage in Ezekiel when he said in John chapter three we must be born of water and the Spirit.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5 ESV)
Paul told Titus
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:4-5 ESV)
No one can enter the kingdom of God unless God gives the ability to repent. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:25 that God must grant repentance. God desires all the glory so, from beginning to end, he accomplishes the salvation of his people.
In verse 32 of Ezekiel chapter 36 God reiterates that it is not for the people’s sake he is doing this.
It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Ezekiel 36:32 ESV)
This passage from Ezekiel chapter 36 lines up exactly with what God spoke through Jeremiah in Jeremiah chapter 31. Note again the repeated use of “I will.”
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34 ESV)
Since Hebrews 8:7-13 quotes this passage from Jeremiah, it is crystal clear that Jeremiah and Ezekiel are referring to the new covenant established by Jesus. So God is saying I’m sending Jesus to suffer, die, and rise again to save my people, and I’m doing this for the sake of my holy name, for my glory.
So what’s the point? Let us not ever think that because God is love we are God’s top priority. Only our own human arrogance could ignore all that Scripture says about God to come up with that idea. God always thinks first of himself and his glory, and that is the way it must be. As Acts 17:25 says God needs nothing (not even us), and mankind’s creation and continued existence is in his hands. If for one moment there was something or someone that God placed above himself he would no longer be God. Everything he does is for the sake of his holy name. Iain Duguid puts it this way.
God’s exclusive concern with his own name and glory may seem offensively self-absorbed to contemporary readers. We are used to beginning our theological reflection “from below” and celebrating the God who is “for us.” But God is only for us because it brings glory to himself. Moreover, such self-absorption is as great a virtue in God as it is a flaw in human beings. For God to delight in his own perfections is entirely appropriate, since there is no one and nothing greater in which he can delight. To delight in anything less than himself would be idolatry, just as surely as it is idolatry for us as creatures to delight in anything less than our great Creator. Sanctifying his great name, exalting God above all things, is the only task fit for God himself and for humankind, whom he has create in his image.
Forever we will worship this One who does all things for the sake of his holy name.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12 ESV)
 Iain M. Duguid, The NIV Application Commentary: Ezekiel, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 419.