Hebrew has a word for life-long love that is richer and deeper than English has ever conceived of—hesed (HEH-sed). Based in a covenantal relationship, hesed is a steadfast, rock-solid faithfulness that endures to eternity:
“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken” Isaiah 54:10.
Hesed is a love that is so enduring that it persists beyond any sin or betrayal to mend brokenness and graciously extend forgiveness:
“No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love (hesed).” (Lamentations 3:31-32)
Hesed is to love as God loves. When God’s presence passed by Moses on Mt. Sinai and revealed his very essence, God proclaimed his great hesed. (Exodus 34:6) Biblical scholar John Oswalt describes it this way:
The word hesed…[is] the descriptor par excellence of God in the Old Testament. The word speaks of a completely undeserved kindness and generosity done by a person who is in a position of power. This was the Israelites’ experience of God. He revealed himself to them when they were not looking for him, and he kept his covenant with them long after their persistent breaking of it had destroyed any reason for his continued keeping of it. …Unlike humans, this deity was not fickle, undependable, self-serving, and grasping. Instead he was faithful, true, upright, and generous—always.(1)
Like other Hebrew words, hesed is not just a feeling but an action. It intervenes on behalf of loved ones and comes to their rescue. After Abraham’s servant miraculously found a wife for Isaac by bumping into her at a well, he praised God “who has not abandoned his kindness (hesed) and faithfulness to my master” (Genesis 24:27). Because hesed is often active, it’s translated as “mercy” or “loving-kindness,” but neither of these words fully convey that hesed acts out of unswerving loyalty even to the most undeserving.
Hesed is a bone-weary father who drives through the night to bail his drug-addict son out of jail. Hesed is a mom who spends day after thankless day spoon-feeding and wiping up after a disabled child. Hesed is an unsung pastor’s wife whose long-suffering, tearful prayers keep her exhausted husband from falling apart at the seams. Hesed is love that can be counted on, decade after decade. It’s not about the thrill of romance, but the security of faithfulness.
My parents celebrated their sixty-third anniversary before my father died two years ago. I was born last of seven, after they had been married twenty-some years. The love I saw between them was not newlywed passion but a calm commitment to travel through life’s highs and lows together.
They were hardly unusual in their generation, but the gift they gave their children is getting rarer every day—a sense that our lives were stably anchored in a loving family. By weathering life’s storms together, year after year, my parents embodied God’s hesed.
I wonder if hesed is becoming harder for people to grasp nowadays. Love, to us, is dating and romance—a candle-lit restaurant and a sunset walk along the beach. Our movies tell us that a housewife who dumps her balding, boring husband for a shadowy stranger with a passionate kiss has discovered true love. We focus on love in the short-term. Is this because lifelong loyalty is becoming so rare? As more and more of us grow up in broken families, are we losing our ability to imagine love that never ends?
More and more, Christians even talk about our relationship with God as a romance. We reminisce about the day we accepted Christ, fondly remembering the night we first met. Does that mean that we’re only dating and not married? On my crabby, grumpy days, God’s hesed is what I hang on to. For better or worse, he’s stuck with me—no matter what.
(1) John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 71.
An excerpt from my book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2012)
Readers may also enjoy my new bible study on Hebrew words, 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know
Images – top: Flikr – Tokaris; bottom: my parents’ wedding day – August 23, 1944