A thorough study of the Hebrew word hesed in the Old Testament will reveal that it has always been God’s plan to establish a holy nation of people from every tribe, clan, language and culture to be the objects of his hesed. Beginning with a concordance study, followed by an analysis of the contextual use of hesed, I will demonstrate that the idea of redeeming a particular people through the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ has always been God’s plan in light of His hesed. Finally, I will articulate how the knowledge gained from the study can be applied to ministry, discipleship, and theology.
According to the Enhanced Strong’s Concordance, the Hebrew word חֶסֶד, transliterated checed or hesed (H2617), is a masculine noun pronounced like this kheh'•sed. The first time hesed is used in the Old Testament is in Genesis 19:19 with the last occurrence being found in Zechariah 7:9. Between these two passages hesed is used 248 times in 241 verses in the Hebrew concordance of the Authorized Version (AV). Of these 248, over half (127) of the occurrences can be found in the book of Psalms. The remaining occurrences are nearly evenly divided between the law, the historical books, and the seventeen prophetical books. In the New American Standard Bible (NASB), hesed is found 253 times in 241 verses with the same first and last occurrence as the AV. Fifty-six percent of the time hesed is translated with the English word “mercy” in the AV; and in the NASB, mercy is used for hesed fifty-nine percent of the time. The words kindness, lovingkindness, and goodness account for the majority of the other instances. Finally, on one occasion NASB translators render hesed “wicked thing” and another time “reproach.”
Hesed (H2617) is used eleven times in the book of Genesis beginning with God’s saving of Lot’s life. Since this is the first use of the hesed in Genesis, and thus the Bible, thoroughness in examination is important. Based on Abraham’s intercession for as few as ten righteous residents of Sodom, God sent two angels to rescue the righteous in the city (Gen 19) before He destroyed it (along with Gomorrah) for its wickedness (Gen 18:20). Evidently, Lot and his family did not take the need to evacuate very seriously because the angels had to urge Lot and his wife to get up and get out of the city before they were “swept away in the punishment of the city. But he [Lot] lingered. So the men seized him by the hand [because] the Lord [was] being merciful to him” (Gen 19:15-17). Then Lot said, “Behold your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness [hesed] in saving my life” (Gen 19:19). So when Lot so sensed that his life was at stake and he could have died but he instead was rescued, he concluded he had received “great hesed.” In the book of Genesis, hesed nearly always relates to saving or losing one’s life. In Genesis 20:13, Sarah was asked to lie to potentially save Abraham’s life. In Genesis 21:23, Abimelech and Phicol, fearing for their lives, ask Abraham to return the hesed he previously received. Jacob fearing for his life asks for hesed (Gen 32:10), and Joseph wanted hesed to be delivered from prison where he probably thought he would die (Gen 40:14). Finally, Israel asks Joseph, “If he has found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly [hesed] and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt” (Gen 47:29).
From the eleven uses of hesed and most especially Jacob’s plea for hesed, one can gain a better understanding of what this word is all about. Jacob asks for a promise with a hand under his thigh. This is covenant language. Joseph is pledging to fulfill this request for hesed. Jacob is a descendant of Abraham. His father received a promise for land, and Jacob knew Egypt was not that land. Jacob desired to be buried in the land where his people would dwell eternally according to the word of the Lord (Gen 12). Joseph is to ensure that no matter what, his father is not to be buried with the heathen of Egypt. Jacob asks Joseph to “‘Swear to me’; and he swore to him” (Gen 47:31). Although Jacob died in Egypt, he did not remain in Egypt because Joseph swore to his father that he would show him kindness (hesed). Hesed is not kindness like a person waiting in a long line lets someone with one item go in front of them. Hesed is much deeper than that.
Exodus 34:6-7 (and Num 14:18-19) is a powerful quotation of Yahweh’s description of himself which uses hesed twice. Yahweh, Yahweh, a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love [hesed] for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” Hesed in this passage is translated “goodness” in the KJV, NKJV; “faithful love” in the HCSB; “love” in the NIV and “lovingkindness” in the NASB. Hesed is another word that describes the amazing, enduring love Yahweh has for His people in spite of their rebellion and sin. Hesed does not compromise his integrity or justice; he still punishes sin. However, he is compelled to show mercy, delay punishment, and forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin. Hesed is one of the words that describes what makes Yahweh worthy of worship. He is not like any other God; he is a covenant-keeping God and shows steadfast love [hesed] to his servants (2 Chron 6:14).
In Joshua 2:12 and 14, Rahab the spy communicates to Joshua and Caleb that since she has shown hesed (kindness) to them she expects them to reciprocate hesed (kindness) to her. Then in verse 14, the men commit to reciprocating hesed with her. “Then she let them down by a scarlet cord through the window” and they live, and later she lives because of the hesed they swore one to another (2:20). So again hesed often communicates kindness, but always in the sense of living and dying.
Hesed is found in the book of Psalms 128 times in 127 verses. One cannot understand the depth of the word hesed without examining how it is used by various psalmists. Four different times hesed is described in relation to salvation in Psalms13:5, 69:13, 85:7, and 98:3. Similarly, God’s right hand saves those who put their trust in him as a display of his “lovingkindness” (AV) or “steadfast love” (ESV) (hesed). In Psalm 6:4, a plea for hesed is communicated so that the soul may be delivered. Three times hesed is connected with man’s soul in Ps 31:7, 86:13, and 143:12. Hesed keeps the king secure in his position because he trusts in the Lord (Ps 21:7), and Psalm 31:16 is a plea to be saved in God’s hesed.
There are forty-two specific references to “hesed enduring forever” beginning in 1 Chronicles 16:34 and culminating in Jeremiah 33:10. In Psalm 136, the central message of the entire psalm is the truth that God’s mercy, lovingkindness, or steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. Hesed is mentioned in every one of the twenty-six verses in Psalm 136. God’s steadfast love endures forever because God’s covenant relationship with his people endures forever. Hesed is often associated in the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because that covenant is without end and hesed is a “lovingkindness” that endures forever.
There are ten times hesed can be found in the book of Proverbs in the AV/ESV. In this collection of wise sayings, one can find the most variance in the meaning of hesed. There is a degree of kindness from one human to another (Prov 31:26). There is a variance in Proverbs 19:22 where the ESV states, “What is desired in a man is steadfast love”; whereas, the KJV renders it “kindness.” Then there are specific references to God’s eternal covenant and lovingkindness to his people like Proverbs 3:3. Finally, there is a unique reference where hesed is translated reproach in Proverbs 14:34, but this is an anomaly in the normative use of the word.
In addition to a clear linkage to the Abrahamic covenant, hesed also is linked to the Davidic covenant in Isaiah 16:4b-5. Isaiah writes, “When the oppressor is no more, and destruction has ceased, and he who tramples underfoot has vanished from the land then a throne will be established in steadfast love (hesed) and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David.” Again, Isaiah 55:3 emphasizes the relationship hesed has with the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. Finally, the prophet emphasizes that hesed belongs to Yahweh in Isaiah 63:7. In fact, there are seven different references to hesed being “of the Lord” in the ESV. Seven different times the particular rendering “steadfast love of the Lord” is found in 1 Sam 20:14, Ps 33:5, 89:1, 103:17, 107:43, Is 63:7 and La 3:22.
Jeremiah, the author of Lamentations 3:22, helps the reader truly understand how significant it is for God to possess this “steadfast love” or as the KJV translates it “mercies.” He indicates that the only reason Israel is not consumed, or that the only reason Israel is still alive, is because of the Lord’s hesed toward his covenant people. In a state of exile, Daniel uses the word in nearly the same sense in Daniel 9:4, where in a prayer, he reminds God of this hesed and his covenant. The word or promise of the Lord is important; God has obligated himself to show “steadfast love” to his people even when they deserve otherwise.
Having studied nearly every use of the hesed in the Old Testament, it is apparent that hesed has what could be described as a sliding meaning of sorts. This helps account for why none of the major translations have consistently used one word or set of words to communicate the intent of the author when he used hesed. For example, the ESV uses “steadfast love” as its primary way of translating hesed, but not in every case. The harlot was not showing Joshua and Caleb “steadfast love”; instead, they received from her the strongest amount of kindness a person can give to another without it being love (which obviously has some degree of love behind it). However, when God’s covenant people experienced mercy/grace (hesed) from God it was because of his enduring love for those he elected to be his people. God has bound himself to his own character to show mercy (AV) or lovingkindness (NAS) or steadfast love (ESV) to his people because of their covenant relationship. Translating hesed as just “kindness” is not the best choice in most cases, but neither is just “mercy.” Steadfast love emphasizes the covenant aspect of the word hesed, but it does not emphasize the forgiveness aspect of hesed when it is associated with sin/transgression and salvation/redemption/deliverance. Perhaps steadfast lovingkindness best describes the meaning of hesed in the majority of instances where it is found.
Believers in Christ everywhere can have great peace and assurance in knowing that the God of the Old Testament, who does not change, is unconditionally steadfast in his love for those who are spiritual sons and daughters of father Abraham because all that are Christ’s are Abraham’s (Gal 3:29). They are eternally secure. The just have always lived by faith in the promises of God as revealed to them to the point that it is always faith that saves one from God’s wrath. This means that every promise made to Abraham can be claimed by every disciple of Christ including God’s promise of steadfast, enduring, unconditional lovingkindness in a most merciful way to those who deserve just the opposite. Even the land promise will be fulfilled in the life of the believer in a place of eternal rest. Thus I am freed from the burden of earning God’s favor or maintaining his love for me through the keeping of the law. In Christ, my burden is light because of his provision of righteousness (Mt 11:27-29). As a Christian, I am not earning his favor, but neither was Abraham.
Although beyond the scope of this work, I would like to suggest the depth of this word as it relates to God’s relationship to people certainly calls into question some of what is taught under the umbrella of dispensationalism. It is not theologically accurate to suggest that God was not gracious to his people in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament there is now grace. There has always been grace. Hesed is filled with grace. This quality of God comes from his marvelous grace. When Israel received hesed instead of wrath, they were experiencing grace. Grace is not a new attribute that evolved in God, nor was it a hidden attribute in God.
Hesed is a gospel word. The gospel of the Lord Jesus requires that I extend to others just what I have received from the Lord. For a Christian, not forgiving someone else for a transgression is not optional. Several times hesed is used in this reciprocal manner. In Genesis 21:23, Abimelech and Phichol expected that as they “have dealt kindly with you [Abraham], so you will deal with me.” The same is true of the harlot and Joshua and Caleb. The harlot expected that Joshua and Caleb would extend to her the same hesed she extended to them. Likewise God, who is often treated like a harlot by his people, expects Christians to extend to others the same hesed he faithfully extends to us through the gospel (Mt 18:23-35), which is not a new idea. The prophet Zechariah told the people that God expected them to “render true judgments, show hesed, and mercy [or compassion] to one another” (7:9).
A thorough understanding of hesed makes it clear that God has always had a plan of forgiving sin and transgressions and saving people from his wrath in order to demonstrate to the world his marvelous steadfast love, mercy, and enduring lovingkindness in an amazingly faithful way to his glory. When one understands the depth of this merciful kindness that endures unto all generations to those who trust in him, the only appropriate response is to declare with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12).
God’s unconditional, enduring lovingkindness to his people is what distinguishes Yahweh and the true Christian gospel from every other world religion and cult on the planet. The depth of the meaning of hesed as it is used in the covenant relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and in Exodus 34:6-7, and the Psalms, and numerous other passages provides assurance that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not an invention of twelve men. On the contrary, it is the purest manifestation of God’s steadfast, merciful lovingkindness (hesed) to those who will trust in Him forever (Ps 52:8).
Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1996.