A Word for Today: Loving Kindness (Heb. Hesed)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
‘Here is love vast as the ocean,
Loving kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our ransom
Shed for us His precious blood’
Little did William Rees realize what an impact these words would have on future generations as his majestic hymn became the accredited love song of the 1904 Welsh Revival. His hymn reflects the important Old Testament theme of the loving kindness of God, exemplified in the Hebrew word hesed.
Hesed is variously translated in English as goodness KJV, love NIV, steadfast love ESV, and kindness JSB. In simple terms, it means loyalty, but when used in relation to God brings with it the idea of an unchanging love that can be utterly relied upon by those who are loved by God. It is therefore a relational term, and often expresses God’s faithful and loving commitment to Israel. For example, in Exodus chapter 34 verses 6 and 7, which has been described as Israel’s article of faith and as God’s self-disclosure,1 hesed is linked in verse 6(e) with the Hebrew word emet (English = trustworthiness). So, in effect, steadfast love and faithfulness are single attributes of God being dual elements of a unique quality. This is further developed in verse 7(a)-(b) where we are told that this is an ongoing disposition of God. This statement and that in verse 7(f)–(j) parallels Exodus chapter 20 verses 5 and 6, but reverses the order. ELLISON2 translates lines 7(a) and (b) as ‘keeping covenant love for thousands (of generations)’, and suggests that this is the correct rabbinical interpretation, cf. Exod. 20. 6. There is an important difference to be noted though as in the later text hesed is unqualified, whereas it is qualified in the earlier text. Thus what is being emphasized in Exodus chapter 34 verse 7(a) and (b) is nothing less than God’s unmerited grace towards His people. God’s steadfast love lasts, in fact, to all generations, Deut. 7. 9. So this reveals to us a love that will never let us go and a God who is utterly dependable, and above all graciously open-handed towards His people. Therefore, what a great God we serve! No surprise, then, that ‘the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases’, Lam. 3. 22 ESV.
In the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) hesed is generally translated by the Greek word ëleos, which can mean mercy or compassion. In the New Testament this word often speaks of the mercy of God, Matt. 9.13, which is a parallel of the hesed of God, Hos.6. 6.
Whilst hesed occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament, it mainly arises in the Psalms where it again emphasizes the love and faithfulness of God towards His redeemed people.
In Psalm 85, the psalmist calls for the restoration of Israel to their own land and prays for the faithful character of God to act at the present time, vv. 1-3. Twice in this psalm, Israel calls upon God to exercise His steadfast love towards them so that they might be saved, vv. 7, 10. TATE3 translates ‘steadfast love’ in verse 7 as ‘loyal-love’, thus accentuating the plea of the psalmist. It is because the psalmist has grasped that God is faithful to His covenant with Israel that he has the courage to ask God to respond to his entreaty expecting a positive result, cp. Ps. 62. 12. Thus the dual elements of love and trustworthiness expressed in Exodus chapter 34 verses 6-7 underpin the psalmist’s confidence in God.
By way of contrast, the psalmist in Psalm 86 is at pains to defend his personal integrity by protesting his innocence and seeking help and protection from God. There is a noticeable urgency in the supplication of the psalmist, and an imperative form of prayer directs the whole proceedings. Again, the psalm includes direct quotations taken from Exodus chapter 34 verse 6 relating to the attributes of God, vv. 5, 13, 15. Significantly, in verse 15, the psalmist turns the quotation around, Exod. 34. 6(c)– (e), and makes it a personal affirmation in his belief that God is more than able to assist him because of His love and faithfulness.
Finally, Psalm 136 repeats in every verse the many acts of hesed that Israel experienced in their history. The continuous refrain, ‘His steadfast love is eternal’ means that God will always keep faith with His people despite their unfaithfulness.
Thus hesed is one of those rich Hebrew words that help us to understand and explain the uniqueness of our God to a passing world marked by unfaithfulness. The blessings that we enjoy come directly to us as a result of His unchanging and steadfast love demonstrated in the death of Christ for us, Rom. 5. 8–11. Just as Israel reflected upon the mercy of God, let us too take time daily to praise Him for His loving kindness and tender mercy towards us His redeemed people, Heb. 13. 15.
For further reading/study
Girdlestone, Robert B. Synonyms of the Old Testament.
Renn, Stephen D. (Ed.) Expository Dictionary of Bible Words.
Longman, Tremper III and Enns, Peter (Ed.): Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (illustrated).
VanGemeren, Willem A. (Ed.): New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (5 Volumes).
1. Ellison suggests that these verses contain eight statements that the rabbis list as the thirteen attributes of God.
2. Page 180, Exodus: Louisville; Westminster John Knox Press.
3. Page 364, Psalms 51-100; Word Biblical Commentary, Nashville.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.