Understanding Covenant, VII: Hesed
One cannot come to a good understanding of God’s relationships with mankind without considering covenants. Covenants are agreements maintaining mutual benefits and obligations. God made covenants with the creation in the days of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel at Mount Sinai, and with David in days of old; in Christ God has established a new covenant with all mankind. Covenants maintain distinctive qualities, and yet great continuity exists among all covenants God has made with mankind. But what led God to desire to establish covenants with these people, and not only to establish them, but to remain faithful to them even when the people proved less than faithful? Throughout the Old Testament we hear how God is the Creator of heaven and earth; we also hear, just as frequently, how God has displayed hesed toward His people. Perhaps it is God’s hesed which is the key.
Hesed cannot be translated into English in such a way as to communicate its full range and depth of meaning, as can be seen in the variety of ways it has been translated in various versions: “mercy,” “kindness,” “love,” “lovingkindness,” “steadfast love,” or “loyal love.” hesed seems to capture the disposition of YHWH toward His people, and embodies provisions for love and care along with dependence and faithfulness in commitment: a mixture of “lovingkindness” with “covenant loyalty.” Among translations found in formal equivalence versions, “steadfast love” comes closest; among dynamic equivalence translations, “faithful love” or “loving commitment” is even better. hesed captures YHWH’s love, kindness, and mercy toward His people reflected in His loyalty and faithfulness to the covenant which He made with them. We can understand why it proves so difficult to convey this concept into English in a word or two!
Time would fail us if we spoke of all the ways in which YHWH’s hesed for His people is described in the Old Testament. God displays hesed to generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6, Deuteronomy 7:9, 12). The Psalmists magnify YHWH for the hesed He has displayed toward Israel; in Psalm 136:1-26 all continually respond in their confidence of how YHWH’s hesed endures forever. Even in the midst of their despair about Israel’s present, the prophets maintained hope that YHWH would again show hesed to Israel as He promised to their fathers in Abraham (Micah 7:20).
Hesed was translated into Greek primarily by eleos, “mercy,” and we find plenty of examples of the Apostles praising God for His great mercy displayed toward us in Jesus. Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13, 1:7, indicating how God desired Israel to show hesed, not sacrifice. Paul spoke of God as having displayed mercy toward all people in Christ, praised God for making known His glory to humans as vessels of mercy, and considered the proclamation and acceptance of the Gospel among the Gentiles as the opportunity for them to praise God for His mercy (Romans 9:23, 11:30-32, 15:9). To Paul, God is the God of mercies (2 Corinthians 1:3, Philippians 1:8); all Christians are saved by God’s mercy (Titus 3:5). When Christians speak of God’s “mercy,” we tend to do so by the standard definition of “not receiving what is deserved.” While this remains abundantly true, we must also consider the dimensions of the Hebrew hesed when considering mercy in the New Testament, for hesed is too important an aspect of God’s relationship with His people for the Apostles to have entirely neglected it.
God therefore displayed, and continues to display, hesed in His covenants with mankind. We know that God is love, and God desires to be relationally one with mankind His creation as He is one within Himself (John 17:20-23, 1 John 4:8); therefore, God established His covenants with mankind because of His desire to share in love, and established the boundaries of covenants in which to fully display that love and commitment. Such is why we must never neglect the covenant loyalty aspect to hesed; yes, hesed is lovingkindness or steadfast love, but it is always within covenant boundaries and displays great faithfulness to that covenant no matter what.
Only by understanding hesed can we understand how God has conducted Himself toward His people throughout time. Our God is our Creator; He displays great love and kindness toward His people in covenant loyalty. God made a covenant with the creation to never flood the whole world again, and He has proven faithful to that covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham, and on account of that covenant displayed love and kindness to Abraham’s descendants for generations, and through Abraham’s Descendant Jesus displays love and kindness to anyone who would come and share in the faith of Abraham. God manifested loyalty to Israel even when Israel served other gods; He denounced such betrayal simultaneously as adultery and prostitution, exemplifying the severity of the covenant violations in which Israel participated (cf. Ezekiel 16:1-63). Israel and Judah would suffer the Day of YHWH in 722 and 586 BCE, respectively, and yet because of His hesed God did not abandon them forever, restoring His people to their land and ultimately fulfilling all of His promises in Jesus and the Kingdom established in His name.
Our God has proven Himself over and over as loving, kind, and loyal to the covenants which He makes with mankind. God, not unreasonably, asks for us to therefore love Him and remain loyal and faithful to our covenant with Him. We are to be imitators of God by loving as Christ loved us (Ephesians 5:1-2): Christ has loved us by exemplifying God’s hesed, loving us to the point of death on the cross, faithful and loyal to God’s purposes, and so we are to display hesed toward God and one another (John 13:31-35). As Christians we may find ourselves in times of plenty or times of want, times of prosperity or times of want, times of happiness or times in despair, but we may maintain the firm conviction that our God displays hesed toward us: He loves us and is kind toward us, and is faithful to His covenant. We must live in that confidence, and walk worthily of the calling with which God has called us, renouncing the world and its idolatry, and proving loyal to God and His covenant (cf. Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:1, 1 John 5:23).
As with Israel, so with Christians: God is faithful to His covenant and the promises He has made. For now He displays great love and kindness, but we should be careful lest we become complacent, for God’s kindness is designed to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Even though it has been almost two thousand years since Jesus ascended to heaven, we ought to have full confidence He could return at any time, for God is faithful to His promises, even if it takes far more time than we humans might imagine (2 Peter 3:8-12). On that day God’s hesed will be on full display for those who love Him and were loyal to His covenant: eternal life in the resurrection; sadly, on that day, the wrath of God will also be on full display toward those who did not know God or obey the Gospel of the Lord Jesus: eternal condemnation (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). May we serve God in Christ, and praise God our Creator, for He is good, and His hesed for His covenant people endures forever!
Ethan R. Longhenry