Bach's early years as cantor in Leipzig witnessed an extraordinary output of cantatas for weekly Sunday use at the Thomaskirche and the Nicolaikirche, the two principal churches in the city. The vast majority of these date from between 1723 and 1726; thereafter his productivity seems to have fallen dramatically, although a full accounting is made difficult by the fact that so many have been lost. BWV 174 ("I love the highest with my whole heart") belongs to one of these later, probably incomplete cycles. Composed for Whit Monday in 1729, it was first performed on June 6, 1729. The cantatas of this period, Bach's fourth annual cycle (or Jahrgang), are notable for the settings of texts by Picander, the pseudonym of the poet Christian Friedrich Henrici. Bach's collaboration with Picander was particularly fruitful, producing not only the St. Matthew and St. Mark Passions, but a number of his secular cantatas. The poet suggested that Bach set an entire cycle of his cantata texts during the course of 1729, but this was either left incomplete or lost.
The text, drawn from the Gospel of the day (John 3:16-21), is short, consisting of only two expansive da capo arias separated by a recitative for tenor and a final chorale strophe. The reason may well have been practical, since Bach would also have had to prepare a festive cantata for performance the previous day, the feast of Pentecost. To give BWV 174 greater substance, Bach prefaced it with an expanded version of the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, adding two horns, three oboes and bassoon to the concerto's nine-part string scoring, in the process producing one of his most richly textured instrumental movements.
The opening alto aria employs the oboes, whose intertwining lines support the gently expressed sentiments (the words from which the cantata takes its name) and give the aria something of a pastoral quality. The succeeding tenor recitative takes advantage of the concerto's string scoring by employing an accompaniment of three violins and three violas. The aria for bass that follows is suitably more robust; in it the call to the faithful to take the "opportunity of salvation" is underpinned by busy violins and violas. The cantata concludes with a four-part harmonization of the first strophe of Martin Schalling's hymn "Herzlich lieb hab ich dich" (1569).