In the Old Testament, hesed is a central theological term. It is a key attribute in the Lord’s self-description in Exodus 34:6–7, as well as an obligation that is placed on all of His people in Micah 6:8. Yet because there is no exact English equivalent, it has proved hard for Bible translators to render it accurately. In various versions, it appears as “kindness,” “faithfulness,” “mercy,” “goodness,“ “loyalty,” and “steadfast love.” In what follows, we shall explore how love and loyalty are combined in this one word.
Normally, hesed describes something that happens within an existing relationship, whether between two human beings or between God and man. In human relationships, hesed implies loving our neighbor, not merely in terms of warm emotional feelings but in acts of love and service that we owe to the other person simply because he is part of the covenant community. God’s people are to do justly, to love hesed, and to walk humbly with their God (Mic. 6:8).
An example of this that radically redefines the boundary of the community of obligation is the parable that our Lord Jesus told about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37). A good neighbor had an obligation to help a community member who was in trouble. Yet this obligation to show hesed was repudiated by the priest and the Levite, who passed the wounded man on the other side of the road. In this instance, the true neighbor was the Samaritan who “showed mercy” to the stranger (v. 37). Not coincidentally, the Greek word for “mercy” is the same one normally used to translate hesedin the Greek Old Testament.
Similarly, hesed can describe loyalty to one’s obligations to God. This includes faithful act ions toward other members of the covenant community, for how can we say that we love our covenant Lord if we ignore His commands to love our fellow vassals (1 John 4:20)? The person who is hasid (from hesed) is loyal to his God and appeals to the Lord to show him similar faithfulness in return (Ps. 4:4; Ps. 32:6). The name Hasidim has thus been ascribed to the strictest Jews in contemporary Judaism.
Yet the most precious use of the word hesed in the Old Testament is as a description of what God does. Having entered a covenant relationship with His people, God bound Himself to act toward them in certain ways, and He is utterly faithful to His self-commitment.
Psalm 136 explores what the Lord’s hesed means in its broadest possible terms, for each line concludes with the words: “his hesed endures forever.” Because of the Lord’s hesed, He created the universe, and He rules it daily through His providence (Ps. 136:5–9, 25). Because of His hesed toward Israel, He redeemed them out of Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea and the wilderness into the Land of Promise. For the same reason, He hurled the Egyptians into the sea and struck down the Canaanite kings before them (vv. 11–21). Both His deliverance of His people and His destruction of their enemies are aspects of the Lord’s faithfulness to His promise to make Abraham a mighty nation, blessing those who bless him and cursing those who curse him (Gen. 12:1–3).
Even when His people sin against Him and face the consequences of their sin, they may still appeal to the Lord’s hesed, as the writer of Lamentations does in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Surrounded by the evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness to judge wickedness, rebellion, and sin, he casts himself on the unchanging character of God, affirming, “The hesed of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22–23).
In Psalm 23:6, the psalmist declares that the Lord‘s goodness and hesed will pursue him all the days of his life. The word pursue normally describes the action of pillaging armies and covenant curse, but the psalmist is convinced that instead of the covenant curse he deserves, the Lord’s faithful love and goodness will hunt him down relentlessly instead.
The fullness of the Lord’s hesed is seen in the cross: there the true hasid, Jesus Christ Himself—the only human ever truly to be loyal to the Lord and to His neighbor in every aspect of life—was treated as the covenant breaker and cursed for sin so that we who are unfaithful might be clothed in His faithfulness and thus redeemed. In this way, God’s original covenant purpose to have a people for His praise was faithfully accomplished.
The Lord’s hesed will never let us go. In the midst of life’s trials and tragedies, we may cry out to our loving Lord in confidence that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the loyal love that chose us before time began, is sanctifying us in the present, and will faithfully bring us to our eternal home (Rom. 8:28–30).