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What does the Hebrew word 'hesed' mean?

The ancient Hebrew language has fewer words than the English language, so biblical Hebrew words often have multiple and nuanced meanings. Thus translating those words into English can be a challenge when there is not an exact equivalent word in English. Such is the case with the Hebrew word hesed, also spelled Checed. It has been translated as "mercy," "lovingkindness," "goodness," "steadfast love," "unfailing love," and "faithful love," among other words.

Hesed comes from a root word that means to bow one's head in courtesy to an equal. It is the idea of showing kindness above and beyond what is expected. In English we might describe this Hebrew concept of hesed as benevolence, grace, ardent desire for someone, zeal toward a person, or abiding favor. This Hebrew word is used 253 times in 241 verses in the Old Testament and is used to describe humans showing kindness and mercy to other humans, humans showing devotion and faithfulness to God, and God extending unconditional love and unmerited mercy to humans. In all those instances, there is included the idea of the steadfastness and continuing nature of a long-lasting and abiding kindness.

Because of this feature of long-lasting commitment to kindness, hesed is often used in the context of covenants or oaths. When Abimelech wanted to make a peace treaty with Abraham when their servants squabbled over water rights to a well, he said, "As I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me" (Genesis 21:23). The word "kindly" in this verse is the Hebrew word hesed. Abimelech wanted a lasting kindness to be extended between them.

Similarly, when Jonathan made a covenant with David, knowing that David was God's anointed king and that Jonathan might not survive the transition of power between his father and David, he asked, "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 20:15). "Steadfast love" in this verse is the Hebrew word hesed. Jonathan wanted David to extend love, kindness, and mercy to him and his descendants after David ascended to the throne. When David kept this promise, he explained to Jonathan's descendant, "Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan" (2 Samuel 9:7). "Kindness" in this verse is the Hebrew word hesed and entails the fact that not only would David not kill this man as a threat to his power, but also that David would instead return to him his ancestral land and allow him to eat as a guest at the king's own table.

Covenants between humans are not the only context in which we see this Hebrew word. Hesed is also used to describe humans' faithful devotion to the Lord. The chronicler in Second Chronicles records that Hezekiah's "good deeds" and Josiah's "good deeds" are written in the Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel (2 Chronicles 32:32; 35:26). "Good deeds" in these verses is the Hebrew word hesed. Similarly, Nehemiah asked God, "Remember me, O God, concerning this and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service" (Nehemiah 13:14). So these "good deeds" were actually a lifelong faithful devotion to the Lord as expressed by the Hebrew concept of hesed.

The ultimate example of faithful and abiding love is the love God shows to His people. God revealed to Moses that He is "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 two verses is the Hebrew word hesed. Here we can see its connection to mercy, grace, and forgiveness and this idea that it is a continuing commitment to extend goodness toward future generations. Moses used this description of God when praying for forgiveness for the people. He reminded God of His promise to be "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression" (Numbers 14:18). Near the end of his ministry, Moses reminded the people again of these characteristics of God in Deuteronomy 5:10. This steadfast love of God is referenced numerous times throughout the Psalms. In fact, every verse in Psalm 136 ends with the refrain "for His steadfast love endures forever."

We see the full extent of God's love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God provided a Savior not only for the Jews, but for all people (Galatians 3:26–29). He was faithful to His promise to Abraham to bless all the families of the earth through him (Genesis 12:1–3; Galatians 3:16–18). God is unchanging. The hesed love of God Moses described is the same steadfast love He has for all who put their trust in Him.

From these examples of its use in the Bible, we see that hesed includes the idea that mercy has been extended as Abimelech could have warred against Abraham, David could have killed Jonathan and his descendants, and God could have destroyed the human race. Not only has mercy been shown, but underserved kindness has also been extended, so the expected response is that the other party would commit to faithful devotion toward the one who showed this mercy and kindness. This faithful devotion is seen in the lives of Hezekiah, Josiah, and Nehemiah. But the most incredible example is that God Himself exhibits a faithful devotion and unconditional love for His people despite their failings. We can have confidence in God's love because it is this Hebrew concept of hesed. So may we heed the call of the psalmist and "Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever" (Psalm 136:26).

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