Hesed and Emet

Circa summer 1984. I participated in the most influential course of my life to date – Old Testament Survey. It was my first graduate-level course as I began the long journey toward a masters degree. The course was offered by Fuller Seminary, in partnership with Young Life’s Institute in Youth Ministry. IYM attendees, professors, and their respective families all lived in community at Hope College in Holland, MI, with classes held at Western Theological Seminary. We attended classes in the morning, all had lunch together, then hit the library to study for about 8 hours.

The course was taught by Dr. Terry McGonigal. He started our journey together by reminding us that everything we would discuss in the Old Testament pointed to Jesus. Theoretically I knew the truth of this statement, but never had anyone who could explain it to me.

Dr. McGonigal, another professor, and I went for long runs every evening around 9:00 pm. Terry could run the 6+ miles at a sub-7:00 minute/mile pace, a little faster than my norm. The solution? I would ask Terry questions that surfaced from class or my readings to which he was more than willing to expound, slowing him down and providing me with amazing tutorials. I learned more from that course than a typical three credit class. During the coursework, I was introduced to a couple Hebrew words that have impacted my reading and life the past 35 years – hesed and emet. Let’s look at hesed

The Hebrew word hesed (sometimes transliterated as chesed) is translated into English as either steadfast love, lovingkindness, mercy, love, or unfailing love, depending on the translation of the Bible. Looking at Psalm 85:10, we see the treatment of hesed by various translations:

  • Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (NIV)
  • Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (ESV)
  • Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (NASB)
  • Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed. (NKJV)

Hesed is such a rich and robust term that no single English word (or two words, in the case of “steadfast love”) captures its essence. Hesed is not just mercy, but covenant loyalty and relational fidelity. It is freely given, often unexpectedly, without requiring anything in return. Even though hesed stems from covenant (contract) loyalty, there is a sense that the loyalty surpasses the letter of the law. In Hosea, God said that he desires mercy (hesed), not sacrifice (law), which Jesus reiterated (Matthew 9:13). Jesus further reinforced this thought when addressing the Roman law forcing locals to carry soldiers’ packs for a mile; Jesus suggested going an extra mile (Matthew 5:41).

Hesed, you can see, describes the rich and robust depth of God’s character.

Though hesed is usually directional in its Old Testament usage – from God to his people – there is a sense that it was to be practiced ethically in the the way people treated each other, be it relatives, friends, or foreigners. Boaz recognized hesed (kindness) in Ruth’s character (Ruth 3:10). One also thinks of God’s desire that his people not seek vengeance, but show love toward their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) which Jesus reinforced, as part of “Great Commandments” (Mark 12:30-31). The author of Mark used the term agape (love), the Greek equivalent of hesed. Again, think “go the extra mile.”

Hesed is used 248 times in the Old Testament, 50% of its usage is in the Psalms, so it isn’t difficult to spot. As you read, be looking for it. Pay attention to the context in which it is used. I find myself translating the English back to Hebrew, knowing the richness and robustness of the word. I recently read Psalm 85 (above) and wrote in my journal, “Hesed and emet meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” As in Psalm 85, hesed and emet are often found together, increasing the richness and robustness of the description of God’s character. May you experience the hesed of God as you spend time with Him in Scripture.

Next time, we’ll look at emet.