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
I love this piece! (I hesed this piece? Is that when you leave the same printouts and cartoons on your fridge for decades?)
It’s so interesting how people view relationships these days. I read the other day that countries with more gender equality see an increase in sexual activity in general, supposedly because it’s no longer a bartering tool for women to get men to provide for them via marriage. The problem with the view, though, is that there’s so much more involved with relationships than simple economic gain; society kind of gets into an either/or situation, though, where we see relationships as being practically-based or love-driven, like in those movies you mentioned.
Lois- excellent analysis of hesed and how it really has no true equivalent in english. I had a professor at the Bible College I went to whos main focus was Covenant. He taught many Old Covenant classes and did an awesome job explaining hesed to us and why covenant understanding is so key. I’m curious to ask you, do you see hesed, especially as acted out by Jesus, applying to those who don’t repent?? I have a friend at my fellowship who insists no forgiveness or grace is given by God if there is no repentance. i am thinking hesed may challenge that. I definitely plan on getting your books and hope to see you interviewed on Rachels blog!!!
This is a profound article for today’s generation. My parents were like yours, I never doubted they wouldn’t be there for us kids. It is an idea that we didn’t even know existed. How blessed we are that God’s love is even greater and more committed than theirs. I can’t imagine God’s incredible hesed, but I totally depend on it.
Lois, thanks for this. Hesed has long been one of my favourite words. It’s so often paired with ’emet’, or ‘faithfulness’. I love that you referred to Exodus 34:6. Hesed and emet are there, the Lord is abounding in them. Have you noticed the direct echo in John 1:14? Jesus is ‘full of grace and truth’. A number of years ago, I checked with Dr. John Stek, who confirmed that John is echoing Exodus 34. Thus, ‘hesed and emet’, need to inform our understanding of ‘grace and truth’ in John 1 and throughout John’s gospel, perhaps the whole NT. Thanks for your work. Baruch hashem!
I came over from Kurt Willem’s blog. Hesed is my absolute, most favorite word in the entire Bible. When I learned Hebrew in Seminary (20 years ago), I was so thrilled to find out about this word. It sums up why I have faith in God, who surely has more faith in me than I could ever summon, so perfectly.
Lois Tverberg says
Thanks, everyone, for your comments.
I enjoyed the thought that John 1:14 is likely about “hesed” and “emet.” My understanding is that when “hesed” and “emet” are paired together, the phrase has a different meaning than the words by themselves (like “good and angry” or “tried and true.”) “Hesed v’emet” means “utter faithfulness” or “steadfast love.”
In terms of what God’s hesed does in response to sin, there’s a whole chapter on that in Walking in the Dust. It’s chapter 13, Our Longing Father.
Mary Stutzman says
We came to learn the word hesed from Dwight Pryor, and it is ever more special to us for this reason – it is the name given to our precious grandson! His giant dimples and wonderful smile make my heart sing for joy! May the Lord bless this beutiful child with growing understanding and appreciation of his name!! Amen!
What a powerful word! I am struck by how much our American culture doesn’t seem to understand the true meaning of hessed. So often, I think we forget how much God loves us, yet by living with hessed in our relationships with others, I think we’re able to understand God’s love for us on a much deeper level. Thank you for giving me a reminder of the true depth of God’s love through this article, and for the tangible examples of hessed being lived out, especially in the lives of your parents. I’m so thankful that we serve a God who wants to be in deep relationship with us, helping us to understand how incredibly treasured we are to him.
I came across this word in a book I was reading, googled it and found your article. A powerful description that stopped me in my tracks. Our culture does not keep commitments in marriage or parenthood and they struggle to believe in a God who can love Hesed. Thank you so much for this article
Lois Tverberg says
Thanks, Clare. I agree!
Theresa Y. says
It’s the best Love, Loyal and Always.
Steadfast, Sacrificial and Never Ceasing .
This word changed my marriage and my relationship with Christ.
Can you explain, the meaning of
Your Kindness (is better than life)
Lois Tverberg says
Sure – better yet, I’ll give you the tools to do it. Think in terms of the original Hebrew word, not in terms of an English equivalent. In this article I just told you that hesed means “faithful, steadfast, merciful, long-acting love.” But translators are limited to using just one English word for each Hebrew word. So, use your new knowledge of the meaning of hesed to read this verse as saying, “your faithful, steadfast, merciful, long-acting love is better than life.”
is better than life.”
This is what I don’t understand
What is the meaning of Better than life?
I understand that we Christians ought to love the unbelievers, but what about loving the opposite sex? I know we should not compromise our faith, how then should we love the opposite sex who is non Christian?
Lois Tverberg says
Joyce, CS Lewis has a great quote – “Love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” I would think that applies to either sex.
Part of wishing for someone’s best is to not want to be a temptation. So part of loving people of the opposite sex is staying far enough away them that this doesn’t happen.
What if they love each other? Though it is said that we should not be yoked with unbelievers, nor compromise our faith, how about what Paul said in 1 Cor 7:13-16 about marrying a nonbeliever being okay?
Lois Tverberg says
No. “Hesed” is not the same as marrying someone. That’s not what hesed is about. Please don’t use my writing to override Paul’s admonition about not marrying unbelievers.
betsy roy says
Thank you very much for all your work which I am learning from and appreciate! I am very interested to learn more about the connection of hesed and emet with grace and truth. How does John 1:14 echo Exodus 34:6 as mentioned by John’s comment posted on 5/10/12? I read your response, Lois, but I need more explanation please. Thank you.
I was searching for an english word that makes one to love someone undeserving, and I came across your article. The Hebrew word “Hesed” captured my heart. It burned in my heart like the words of Jesus did to two of his disciples on their way to Emmaus(Luke 24:32). Thanks for putting this together and sharing it.
Joyce Veronica says
While writing a song about God’s unfailing love, I decided to google the Hebrew word hesed and came upon this article. The many English adjectives needed to describe hesed helped me get a glimpse into the scope and meaning of this word. As a result, a very intense, joyous and intimate moment between God and me was prompted. Lo and behold, the second stanza of my song was penned. “Though the mountains shake, the hills be removed; yet Your unfailing love, yet Your unfailing love; Your deep, eternal love is unshakable!”
Thank you for your article, I have been researching the meaning of Hesed for many years now.
I wonder if the word Jesus used to ask Peter “do you love me more than these?” in John 21:15, was actually hesed?
Since we do not have originals in Aramaic or Hebrew the best we can do is look at the Greek and Latin translations. Greek uses “Agape” and Latin “Dilige”, neither having the exact meaning of Hesed. If Jesus used Hesed, no wonder Peter was confused and answered “Yes, I am your friend (philios)” prompting a repetition of the question….
If Jesus used Hesed, which involved “faithful covenant commitment to act and improve the loved one’s condition (materially or spiritually)”. How could Peter do that to one who has everything? Then Jesus explained:Feed my lambs.
The way I see it, Jesus was explaining to Peter (again) that:”what you do to the least of my children you do unto me”. Meaning, for Peter to practice Hesed to Christ would involve nourishing Jesus followers.
What do you think?
Gart Ventimiglia says
I am trying to find out how I can order a copy of Oswald’s book, “Hesed: Enduring, Eternal, Undeserved Love.” I cannot find it anywhere. Can you help me?
Lois Tverberg says
Gart, The title you are quoting is that of this article, not of a book that was written by John Oswalt. The quote from him comes from his book, “The Bible Among the Myths” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).