When our family moved to another country learning the language was brutal. We soon discovered that some words in our English language simply didn’t translate into our host country’s language. And vice versa. This runs true with the precious biblical Hebrew word, hesed. The meaning of hesed compels us to comprehend more about God’s love for us, yet it falls short of its completeness by the constraints of language.
Reading through the Psalms a few years ago, repeated arrangements of the word love arrested my attention. I discovered hesed is a prominent factor in the Old Testament Hebrew language. This led me on a search to discover what is hesed love, and what does it tell us about God’s love for us?
What Is the Meaning of Hesed?
The meaning of hesed has no English or Greek equivalent. It is born from a root word that means to bow one’s head toward another and stems from a covenant relationship. However, the meaning of hesed encompasses much more. Entire books are dedicated to unraveling what it means, but the more we learn of it, the more we discover the mere stringing of letters cannot completely describe a concept beyond finite comprehension.
Bible versions translate hesed with many different words such as love, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, mercy, devotion, and favor. One word is often inadequate to embrace what hesed represents.
Blended words using “love” as a foundation give a fuller understanding. Hybrid combinations such as loyal-love, steadfast-love, faithful-love, lovingkindness, unfailing and loyal love may come closer to the Hebrew intent. Many scholars feel “lovingkindness” represents hesed best.
Where Do We See Hesed Used in the Bible?
When Moses met God on Mount Sinai, God’s own description of himself included the attribute “hesed.”
“Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin…’” Ex. 34:6-7 NASB.
Other Bible versions for lovingkindness in Exodus 34 use the word, faithfulness, goodness, mercy, and love. Like the conundrum of our learning Italian and seeking the right word, all of the descriptions are correct yet none express it perfectly.
Hesed describes an emotion, links to salvation, binds the relationship between people and covenants with God. It moves toward action and endures throughout all time.
David expresses his confidence in God’s lovingkindness (hesed) in Psalm 23:6, “Surely goodness and lovingkindness(hesed) will follow me all the days of my life…” (NASB).
Micah 6:8 describes our duty before God. “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you, But to do justice, to love kindness (hesed), And to walk humbly with your God?” NASB.
And Zechariah speaks of the relationship with one another. “Thus has the Lord of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion (hesed) each to his brother” Zechariah 7:9 NASB.
Is Hesed the Same as Agape Love?
In the language of the New Testament, agape love is considered the highest form of love, unconditional, by choice, and self-sacrificing. Agape moved God to send His only Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” John 3:16 NASB.
The phrase “so loved” represents agape love.
Although hesed love is sometimes translated in the Greek Septuagint as agape love, it is most often translated in the New Testament as mercy (eleos). The Greek agape is one of three types of love in the New Testament. Covenant love of the Old Testament is often expressed as committed love in the New Testament. Agape and hesed entwine, both rich in meaning and deep with affection, both expressing faithful love.
In the Old Testament as in the New Testament, God is a God of love, compassion, mercy, kindness, and goodness. The attributes described in the word hesed apply within the context of agape New Testament love. However impossible it is humanely to love perfectly, Jesus Christ fulfills the divine requirements of both agape and hesed love. His sacrifice on the cross is the infinite enduring definition of infinite mercy, grace, and love.
6 Ways We Can Experience Hesed in Our Daily Lives
Practice of God’s Word
Bible reading pours all the attributes of God into our minds and hearts. As they enter our souls, hesed love and all its many meanings; lovingkindness, loyal-love, faithful love, covenant love, steadfast love, enduring love, and more take root.
Take a journey down hesed study. Make a conscious effort to look for it. Do a search for the word and make an effort to dig into the passages especially related to hesed love. Then do a comparison with New Testament passages regarding love.
Practice of Prayer and Worship
Make a habit of praying these attributes and worshipping with the truths of God’s overabundant love. Write out a list of words that refer to hesed love. Keep them in your Bible and add to it as you find them. When you pray, speak them back to the Father. Even a finite sliver of the magnitude of God’s infinite love revealed will flow into worship.
Practice of Memorization
Did I hear a groan? It may have been me. Seriously, memorization is difficult. It requires discipline and intention, but the rewards outweigh the hard work involved. God’s Word is always worth every effort. Planted in our minds and memory, it will produce fruit. Fruit will transform and renew.
Practice of Biblical Meditation
I find the idea of God bending toward me in lovingkindness a precious picture. In my relationships with my children and grandchildren, I see the intimacy of inclining my head to another as a sweet form of tenderness and affection. As I rest my head on another, my heart softens with love. When I meditate on verses that point to God’s hesed toward me a similar deep closeness results.
Practice of Fellowship
Our relational community as believers is a taste of God’s design for communion. This fellowship with the body of believers is essential to growth and accountability. Attend a biblically rooted and vibrant church. Find a small group or study to challenge your spiritual growth.
Practice of Beginning Each Day
Whether you wake with the dawn and manage to smile about it or drag from the depths of a black hole as you greet the day, hesed is waiting. A surprising number of verses help us start the day on the right hesed foot.
Psalm 59:16 NASB “But as for me, I shall sing of Your strength; Yes, I shall joyfully sing of Your lovingkindness in the morning, For You have been my stronghold.”
Psalm 90:14 NASB “O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness, That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.”
Psalm 92:2 NASB “To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning, And Your faithfulness by night,”
Ps. 143:8 NASB “Let me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning; For I trust in You; Teach me the way in which I should walk; For to You I lift up my soul.”
Lam. 3:22-23 NASB “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.”
Once we learned a new language, it made the complexities of expression much richer. We found when one language didn’t quite cut it, the other stepped in. God’s language is far beyond the twenty-six letters of our alphabet. The truth of his infinity is reflected in the sheer unattainable grasp of hesed love.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/koyu
Sylvia Schroeder loves connecting God’s Word with real life and writing about it. She is a contributing writer for a variety of magazines and online sites. Sylvia is co-author of a devotional book and her writing is included in several book compilations. Mom to four, grandma to 14, and wife to her one and only love, Sylvia enjoys writing about all of them.
Her love for pasta and all things Italian stems from years of ministry abroad. She’d love to tell you about it over a steaming cup of cappuccino. Connect with Sylvia on her blog, When the House is Quiet, her Facebook page, or Twitter.
This article is part of our Christian Terms catalog, exploring words and phrases of Christian theology and history. Here are some of our most popular articles covering Christian terms to help your journey of knowledge and faith: