There is a beautiful and rich word in the Hebrew language that powerfully describes the faithful mercy and steadfast lovingkindness of our Lord. This meaning filled Hebrew word is transliterated into English as hesed.
Why Study About Hesed?
There are several compelling reasons to engage in a study of the word hesed:
- To be wise. The Scriptures proclaim that if we desire to be truly wise, we will understand what hesed is. "Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the lovingkindness (hesed) of the Lord" (Psa. 107:43, take note that hesed will be in parentheses immediately following its English translation throughout the rest of this article, kdm).
- To be obedient. The Bible also explains that if we are to be truly obedient to God, then we will love hesed. "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy (hesed), and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic. 6:8). The Lord commands us to "observe mercy (hesed)" (Hos. 12:6).
- To learn from the O.T. We frequently, and rightfully so, preach about the use and abuse of God's grace from the New Testament perspective. However, there is a tremendous wealth of often overlooked information about the loving favor of our Lord from an Old Testament standpoint (Rom. 15:4). A study of the Hebrew word hesed will firmly reinforce many substantial truths about God's gracious relationship with man.
- To refute error. Some affirm that the God of the New Testament is different than the God of the Old Testament. They claim that the God of the New Testament is a God of grace while implying that the God of the Old Testament was not. Others also teach that God's grace provides an unconditional umbrella of safety that overlooks ongoing sins of immorality and doctrinal error. This study of hesed will prove such teaching to be false (Jer. 16:5, 10-13).
- To know God. Most importantly, the more we understand hesed, the more fervently we will endeavor to remain under Jehovah's strong wings of protection and love. "How precious is your lovingkindness (hesed), O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings . . . Oh, continue Your lovingkindness (hesed) to those who know You" (Psa. 36:7-10).
Definition of Hesed
have used a variety of words in their attempt to capture the complete meaning of hesed. No one English word adequately embodies its full meaning. You will most often find it translated in your Bible with the words such as lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, or steadfast love. Although hesed may seem completely foreign to many, most have heard of "Hasidic" Jews. "Hasidic" is a form of our word hesed, and describes those who aspire to practice and walk in hesed. In the true Biblical sense of the word, we need to be a "hasidic" people.
- Hesed is connected with lovingkindness. Hesed is God's "lovingkindness in condescending to the needs of His creatures" (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon , p. 339). It refers to unfailing and steadfast love. "Revive me, O Lord, according to Your lovingkindness (hesed)" (Psa. 119:159).
- Hesed is connected with mercy. Hesed also means, "grace; mercy; . . . goodness" (Vine's Expository Dictionary, p. 232). It involves intervening on behalf of one who is suffering in adversity or distress. It embraces an active interest and concern for the well-being of others. "God is my defense, my God of mercy (hesed)" (Psa. 59:17).
- Hesed is connected with covenant loyalty. Hesed is often linked together with the Hebrew word for "covenant" (berit). This occurs so often that hesed "can be a synonym for covenant" (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 661). Notice the connection between hesed and covenant in the following verse: "He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy (hesed) for a thousand generations" (Deut. 7:9, 12). Hesed "applies primarily to God's particular love for His chosen and covenanted people. 'Covenant' also stresses the reciprocity of the relationship" (Vine's Expository Dictionary, pp. 233-234). When the Lord shows hesed to His people, He is being loyal to His covenant. Hesed is "translatable by the word 'loyalty' in that it connotes God's (or human beings) consistent ('steadfast') reliable allegiance and willingness to do good ('love') on behalf of another" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, p. 613). Hesed is not merely a feeling of warm affection toward another, it is deeply rooted in a covenant relationship with expectations of faithfulness for all parties involved.
- Hesed is connected with truth. Hesed is yoked together sixteen times with the Hebrew word for "truth" ('emet). "All the paths of the Lord are mercy (hesed) and truth, to such as keep His covenant and His testimonies" (Psa. 25:10; 85:10; 89:14). Many in our day are trying to remove truth from God's grace. They claim that truth and doctrine are subjective and unimportant elements in relation to grace. However, one cannot have God's hesed without God's truth. "In mercy (hesed) and truth atonement is provided for iniquity" (Prov. 16:6). Forgiveness of sin only comes when hesed is connected with truth.
God Abounds in Hesed
study of hesed reveals a great deal about our God. The following will enumerate just a few of the approximately 245 uses of hesed in the Old Testament. The purpose of this list is not to be excessively repetitious, but to clearly prove the point that the Hebrew Scriptures have a tremendous amount to say about the hesed of the Lord. Consider with awe and humility these Scriptures as they give us a deeper insight into our Creator:
- God's hesed is pleasing. "Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy (hesed). He will again have compassion on us and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Mic. 7:18-19; Jer. 9:24). It is not a burden for the Lord to show hesed to those who seek Him. It pleases and delights Him.
- God's hesed is far-reaching. "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy (hesed) toward those who fear Him" (Psa. 103:11). His hesed is beyond measure, and farther than the eye can see.
- God's hesed is crowning. "Who crowns you with lovingkindness (hesed) and tender mercies" (Psa. 103:4). God lifts us out of the dark and miserable pit of sin and crowns our unworthy heads with His hesed.
- God's hesed is abounding. "I know that You are a gracious and merciful God slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness (hesed), One who relents from doing harm" (Jonah 4:2; Psa. 103:8; Exod. 34:6-7). Jehovah does not have a shortage of mercy. He overflows in His rich supply of hesed.
- God's hesed is everlasting. "But the mercy (hesed) of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him" (Psa. 103:17). God's faithfulness is eternal and without end.
- God's hesed is surrounding. "Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy (hesed) shall surround him" (Psa. 32:10).
- God's hesed is satisfying. "Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy (hesed), that we may rejoice and be glad all our days!" (Psa. 90:14).
- God's hesed is enduring. "Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy (hesed) endures forever" (Psa. 136:1; 52:1). The statement, "For His mercy (hesed) endures forever" is repeated twenty-six times in Psalm 136!
- God's hesed is revealing. "Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness (hesed) in the morning, for in You do I trust" (Psa. 143:8). When we hear God's word, we hear God's hesed.
- God's hesed is drawing. "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness (hesed) I have drawn you" (Jer. 31:3).
- God's hesed is saving. "Show us Your mercy (hesed), O Lord, and grant us Your salvation" (Psa. 85:7).
- God's hesed is overflowing. "The earth is full of the goodness (hesed) of the Lord" (Psa. 33:5).
- God's hesed is astonishing. "Show your marvelous lovingkindness (hesed) by Your right hand" (Psa. 17:7).
- God's hesed is precious. "How precious is your lovingkindness (hesed), O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings" (Psa. 36:7).
We Must Abound in Hesed
in hesed toward God. As God promises to show hesed to us, we must return hesed to Him. The Lord says He will promise to be faithful and devoted to us, and we must likewise be faithful and devoted to Him. As He is loyal to the covenant, so we also must be loyal to the covenant. Will you show hesed to God? Will you be devoted, faithful, and loyal to Him?
Father desires us to be a people of hesed. The book of Hosea speaks of Jehovah's rebuke for His people when they failed to show Him hesed. The Lord charged Israel with spiritual adultery (Hos. 7:4). They had forsaken their covenant with Him. There was no hesed in the land. "The Lord brings a charge against the inhabitants of the land: 'There is no truth or mercy (hesed) or knowledge of God in the land" (Hos. 4:1). Notice again, in the previous verse, the connection between hesed and truth. Their hesed had vanished like a morning dew. "For your faithfulness (hesed) is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away" (Hos. 6:4). They were fickle, unfaithful, and unloyal. God called them to show Him hesed. "I desire mercy (hesed) and not sacrifice and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (6:6). The Lord did not want their insincere and hypocritical worship. He desired their hesed, their faithfulness, and their covenant loyalty. "So you, by the help of your God, return; observe mercy (hesed) and justice, and wait on your God continually" (Hos. 12:6). We, like Judah, need to abound in hesed toward God.
in hesed toward others. Not only must we show hesed toward our Creator, we must also abound in hesed toward our fellowman. Imitate the many examples in Scripture of godly men and women who showed hesed to others. Joseph swore to treat his father Jacob with hesed. "Deal kindly (hesed) and truly with me. Please do not bury me in Egypt" (Gen. 47:29-31). Joseph was loyal to his father and kept his promise to bury him in the promised land (Gen. 50:5f). Because Rahab protected the two Israelite spies, they promised to show her hesed and save her when Israel destroyed Jericho. "It shall be, when the Lord has given us the land, that we will deal kindly (hesed) and truly with you" (Josh. 2:12). Ruth showed hesed through her loyalty and kindness to Naomi. Naomi told Ruth, "Blessed are you of the Lord, my daughter! For you have shown more kindness (hesed) at the end than at the beginning, in that you did not go after young men, whether poor or rich" (Ruth 3:10). David showed hesed for the sake of Jonathan by taking care of his son, Mephibosheth. David told Mephibosheth, "Do not fear, for I will surely show you kindness (hesed) for Jonathan your father's sake, and will restore to you all the land of Saul your grandfather, and you shall eat at my table continually" (2 Sam. 9:7, 1, 3). Notice how these examples of hesed in action combine the elements of faithfulness, keeping your word, loyalty, and love.
in hesed toward your brethren. The hesed that God shows us needs to be reflected in our relationships with our brethren. "Execute true justice, show mercy (hesed) and compassion everyone to his brother" (Zech. 7:9f). Do you treat your brethren with kind love, mercy, and devotion? Are you loyal to your brethren, through the unifying bond of God's word? Can your brethren depend on you? Or, are you more loyal to those who are not loyal to Jehovah? This is a command that we must not reluctantly obey, but one that God requires us to love. "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy (hesed) and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic. 6:8). If we do not show hesed to our brethren, then we do not truly know God and His hesed.
in hesed toward your family. Another important covenant relationship is family. Hesed is used in the context of: husband and wife (Gen. 20:13; Hos. 2:19), father and son (Gen. 47:29), in-laws (Ruth 1:8; 3:10), and other relatives (Gen. 24:49; 1 Sam. 15:6; Ruth 3:10). Do you show hesed to your spouse? Men, are you faithful and devoted to the wife of your youth (Prov. 5:18)? The high divorce rate is a blaring testimony that most couples are not faithful to the covenant of marriage. Some charge that those who preach against divorce and remarriage are not filled with love. To the contrary! The love of hesed demands preaching about faithfulness in marriage and exposes the error of any who would tear this holy relationship asunder (Matt. 19:3-10). Parents, will you show hesed to your children? Women, will you, like the worthy woman, have "the law of kindness (hesed)" on your tongue (Prov. 31:26)? Men, will you imitate your eternal Father's hesed and become fathers who show lovingkindness to your children? Will you provide, protect, nourish, and admonish in true hesed (Eph. 6:4)?
The Conditions of Hesed
have seen the great descriptions of our Father's lovingkindness and mercy. Yes, God's hesed is abounding, surrounding, and everlasting, but is this hesed for everyone without condition? Because Jehovah is abundant in hesed does this mean that He will still send people to an eternal hell? Can we receive the blessings of hesed when we are not faithful to God's covenant? Will hesed "cover" us when we continue in unrepented sin? Does the Lord expect us to abide in His authoritative word? Can we accept false teaching and the teachers of it and still receive hesed? Is hesed an all encompassing umbrella that will shield God's eyes from continuous immorality or doctrinal error?
- Stay faithful to the covenant. Remember that hesed is rooted in covenant loyalty. Yes, God is abundantly merciful and kind (Jonah 4:2). Yes, God will be true and faithful to His covenant (Deut. 7:9). But, many refuse to recognize and accept that the Lord's covenant is conditional. First, one must enter into a covenant with God, which today is the new covenant made possible through the blood of Christ that was shed for the remission of our sins (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:15f). For the reception of this remission of sins and salvation, God requires faith (Heb. 11:6; Mark 16:16), repentance (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38), confession (Rom. 10:9), and baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16). If we are unfaithful to the covenant, then we are subject to punishment (Heb. 10:29) and God's hesed will be removed.
The Lord removed His hesed from Judah during the days of Jeremiah because they were not faithful to the covenant. "'I have taken away My peace from this people,' says the Lord, 'lovingkindness (hesed) and mercies'" (Jer. 16:5). Israel asked why God removed His hesed from them. "Why has the Lord pronounced all this great disaster against us?" (Jer. 16:10). God gives the answer. "'Because your fathers have forsaken Me,' says the Lord; 'they have walked after other gods and have served them and worshipped them, and have forsaken Me and not kept My law. And you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, each one walks according to the imagination of his own evil heart, so that no one listens to Me" (Jer. 16:11-12). God removes His hesed from us when we forsake Him, when we practice false worship, when we do not keep His law, when we put our opinions and imaginations above His word, and when we stop listening to Him. This message desperately needs to be preached to our generation. There is an enormous amount being said today about God's grace, but not much is being said about staying faithful to His word. We cannot expect to receive hesed when we are not faithful.
- Love God. Hesed is also conditioned upon loving God. "Know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy (hesed) for a thousand generations with those who love Him" (Deut. 7:9). We must show our loyalty to our Father by putting Him first in our hearts. "You who keep your covenant and mercy (hesed) with those who love You" (Neh. 1:5). There is no hesed for the one who loves sin, error, worldliness, or self above God.
- Keep the commandments. Notice that God keeps hesed with those who "keep His commandments" (Deut 7:9). Again, Jehovah shows "mercy (hesed)" to those who "keep and do" His judgments (Deut. 7:12). Our Creator will not save those who do not keep His word. "You who keep your covenant and mercy (hesed) with those who . . . observe Your commandments" (Neh. 1:5). Obey the Lord. "The mercy (hesed) of the Lord is everlasting . . . to such as keep His covenant and those who remember His commandments to do them" (Psa. 103:18). The very same verse that describes God's abundant hesed also clearly emphasizes that He does not tolerate the continuation of sin. "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness (hesed) and truth, keeping mercy (hesed) for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation" (Exod. 34:6-7). If we desire our Father's hesed, we must repent of our sin and be obedient.
- Listen to God. Listening to your feelings is not the path to truth and salvation (Prov. 14:12). The way to the mercy and hesed of God comes through logically listening to and understanding His word. Remember that the Lord removed hesed from Judah in Jeremiah's day because "each one walks according to the imagination of his own evil heart, so that no one listens to Me" (Jer. 16:11-12). The key to learning about God's grace is not to be found in reading popular denominational books about the subject. Listen to Jehovah through His revealed word if you want to know about true hesed. "Because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy (hesed) which He swore to your fathers" (Deut. 7:12; Zech. 7:8-14). There is no hesed for those who refuse to open their ears to the word of God.
- Fear the Lord. Receiving hesed from Jehovah is conditioned upon fearing Him. "For as the heavens are high about the earth, so great is His mercy (hesed) toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Psa. 103:11-12). Fear God and you will receive His compassion. "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him" (Psa. 103:13). Fear the Lord and receive everlasting hesed. "The mercy (hesed) of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him" (Psa. 103:17). Determine to fear God and not men. Do not fail to rebuke sin and warn against error because of worldly fear. Hesed is not found in fearing men. Hesed is found in fearing the Lord only.
- Know God. "Continue Your lovingkindness (hesed) to those who know You" (Psa. 36:10). Know who God is, know what He does for you, and know what He expects of you. Knowing the Lord is not just knowing about Him intellectually, it also involves obedience. " Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him." (1 John 2:3-5).
- Trust God. "Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy (hesed) shall surround him. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart" (Psa. 32:10-11). The devil lies to us and tells us that if we trust in the world, then we will be happy and blessed. Such a life only leads to sorrow and destruction. True blessing comes through the hesed of the Lord when we completely trust Him in faith.
Clearly, the hesed of Jehovah is not unconditional. We certainly do not deserve hesed from the Lord, but He does expect faithfulness. God's hesed is not an unconditional umbrella that protects us when we do not keep His commandments. Receiving the hesed of the Lord is conditioned upon trusting, knowing, fearing, listening, keeping, loving, and staying faithful.
those who would abuse the conditions of hesed, know that there is great security and assurance to be found in God. Jehovah is faithful and true to His word. Our Creator acts in lovingkindness as He reaches out to redeem us from this iniquity filled world. We can be confident that if we remain faithful to the Lord that He will remain faithful to us. God will do what He has promised in His word! "Whoever is wise will observe these things, and they will understand the lovingkindness (hesed) of the Lord" (Psa. 107:43). May we all seek to wisely understand, diligently pursue, and continually be thankful for the everlasting hesed of the Lord.
*If you intend to study this word further, take note that hesed is pronounced with a harsh "h", and as a result, is spelled as "chesed" in some sources.
Francis, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1907.
Gesenius, William. Gesenius' Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Trans. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.
Stuart, Douglas K. "Steadfast Love" in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 4, 613-614. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.
Van Gemeren, William A. "Lovingkindness" in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 661-662. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.
Wigram, George V. The New Englishman's Hebrew Concordance: Coded to Strong's Concordance Numbering System. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984.
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