What is lovingkindness in the Bible?

Lovingkindness is how some English translations of the Bible translate the Hebrew word checed (also spelled hesed). In other verses and other versions of the Bible, the word is translated as mercy, goodness, kindness, faithful love, and steadfast love. As with many Hebrew words, there is no exact English equivalent that conveys the fullness of the meaning of checed. However, by looking at its usage in the Bible, we can gain a better understanding of this word's richness.

Checed, or lovingkindness, is usually connected to the idea of covenant (a solemn oath, promise, or commitment). It is used when Abraham makes a covenant and treaty of peace with Abimelech. Abimelech said, "Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned" (Genesis 21:23). "And Abraham said, 'I will swear'" (Genesis 21:24). The phrase "dealt kindly" is actually checed in Hebrew, so Abraham promised to show lovingkindness and mercy to Abimelech and his descendants in return for the kindness and mercy Abimelech had shown him.

Rahab makes a similar plea to the spies she hid in Joshua 2:12–13. "Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death." Jonathan calls for checed in the covenant he made with David. "If I am still alive, show me the steadfast love of the LORD, that I may not die; and do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, when the LORD cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth" (1 Samuel 20:14–15). "Steadfast love," or "lovingkindness" in some translations, in these verses is checed in Hebrew. David fulfilled that covenant by caring for Jonathan's crippled descendant, Mephibosheth, as recorded in 2 Samuel 9.

Most often, however, checed is used in relation to God and His character. When God passed before Moses, He declared Himself to be "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6–7). "Steadfast love" in these verses is checed in Hebrew. Moses repeated this promise back to God when begging Him to forgive the Israelites in Numbers 14:18–19. Moses again pointed to this lovingkindness, or steadfast love, of God when giving the law to the people a second time before they entered the Promised Land. "Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations" (Deuteronomy 7:9). God is a covenant-keeping God who extends mercy, kindness, and love, not because it is deserved, but because it is in His character to do so faithfully forever.

Hundreds of years after entering the Promised Land, an Israelite descendant, Naomi, recognized Boaz's kindness toward her daughter-in-law, Ruth, as an example of God's checed, or lovingkindness, toward Naomi herself. "May [Boaz] be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!" (Ruth 2:20). "Kindness" in this verse is checed in Hebrew. More than one hundred years later, God made a covenant with Ruth's great-grandson, David. In part, speaking of David's son Solomon, and more specifically of Jesus the Messiah, God said, "but my steadfast love will not depart from him" (2 Samuel 7:15). Hundreds of years after that, when the nation was about to be overtaken, God spoke through Jeremiah saying, "but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth" (Jeremiah 9:24). When David's kingdom had fallen apart and God's people were living in captivity, Daniel pled with God repeating Moses's words from long ago "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments" (Daniel 9:4). Later, when the people returned to rebuild Jerusalem they sought God's favor. "But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people…Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly" (Nehemiah 9:17, 32–33).

Throughout the Old Testament, from Moses to the rebuilding of Jerusalem, God's lovingkindess was constant across generations. God's steadfast love, because it is part of God's character, will never change. He will always show lovingkindness. Psalm 136 repeats the phrase "for His steadfast love endures forever" at the end of each of its twenty-six verses.

Checed is a committed love that shows mercy, forgiveness, redemption, favor, and grace toward the one to whom it has been promised. We can call upon God's steadfast love when we need forgiveness (Psalm 25:7), when we need to be delivered from troubles (Psalm 119:149), and when we need assurance of His promises (Psalm 23:6). Certainly, we can follow the Psalmist's plea in Psalm 136:1 to "Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever." God's unending lovingkindness is ample cause for thanksgiving and praise.

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