What if God was fickle? Imagine if God’s love had limits, and came to an end. Would there be good news to proclaim; or would we be given the law, and only those who kept it perfectly (no one!) would be free from judgment.
We would be under judgment, not grace.
חֶסֶד (hesed) is translated as “steadfast love” in most English translations of the Old Testament and is one of the most beautiful words in the entire Bible. It is his steadfast love which motivated the Son to become a man: the atoning sacrifice for the sin of his rebellious image-bearers, so they could be reconciled and free from guilt and shame. But how often do we read about his steadfast love without pausing to truly reflect on what it means?
What Does Hesed Mean?
Consider the following verses as a portrait of God’s astounding steadfast love.
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exodus 34:6 ESV)
“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (1 Chronicles 16:34 ESV)
“You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit.” (Job 10:12 ESV)
“Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalms 106:1 ESV)
“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:10 ESV)
“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.” (Micah 7:18 ESV)
Although most translations render חֶסֶד as “steadfast love,” there remains the question about what it actually means.
In 1927 Nelsen Glueck proposed that Hesed means covenantal faithfulness.
In brief, Glueck built on the growing idea that Israel was bound to its deity by covenants like the Hittite and other treaties. He held that God is pictured as dealing basically in this way with Israel. The Ten Commandments, etc. were stipulations of the covenant, Israel’s victories were rewards of covenant keeping, her apostasy was covenant violation and God’s חֶסֶד was not basically mercy, but loyalty to his covenant obligations, a loyalty which the Israelites should also show.
“חסד,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:305.
While this sounds compelling as God’s faithfulness to his covenant people, it also falls short in grasping the depth and riches of God’s love for his people. Rather than Hesed being his covenantal love, it seems better to understand Hesed as the faithful love which led God to make the covenant in the first place. His love is not bound within a covenant, it is bound to himself and it flows out of his own divine nature.
“So, it is obvious that God was in covenant relation with Israel, also that he expressed this relation in hesed, that God’s חֶסֶד was eternal (Note the refrain of Ps 136) -though the חֶסֶד of Ephraim and others was not (Hos 6:4). However, it is by no means clear that חֶסֶד necessarily involves a covenant or means fidelity to a covenant.”
“חסד,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1:307.
In summary, God’s Hesed is his redeeming love. Despite the sinful rebellion of God’s people, they are rescued from judgment and reconciled through God’s work of salvation. It is important to note this is God’s steadfast love for his people, which enters into the realm of the doctrine of election. Throughout the Old Testament we see God’s Hesed expressed towards Israel. In the New Testament, the Gentiles are “ingrafted branches” as full members of “God’s people” while some branches are pruned off since “not all Israel is true Israel” (Rom 9:6-7, 11:11-24).
Why Hesed Matters
Hesed love is one of God’s attributes. Why does any of this matter?
- Hesed is the drive behind his work of salvation.
- It is his Hesed which reached down to sinners and sent the Son as the atoning sacrifice for humanity to be redeemed and reconciled.
- It is his Hesed which sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to indwell believers, reconciling them to God the Father by uniting them with God the Son through faith.
- It is his Hesed which means not one sheep will ever be snatched from the Father’s hand (John 10:29).
We continue to rely on the steadfast love of God each and every day. When we read about God’s “steadfast love” and skip over it, we are skipping over the holy motivation behind our salvation. Next time you read it, notice the context of God’s provision for your salvation… and give thanks.