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.

Now Let’s Go!

If you have never watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk in which he talks about “Why” before “What” and “How,” you must. Sinek reminds us that knowing what we do and how to do it doesn’t serve us well in life, individually or when we lead others.

When I quit practicing the Christian disciplines close to 40 years ago, I sensed God saying, “Do you know how long I’ve waited for you to quit? Now let’s go.” What did “Now let’s go” mean? It meant going right back to practicing the disciplines in almost the same manner as before. So, what was different?

Everything! I knew how to practice disciplines. I knew what to do. And I thought I knew why I was practicing them. It was my version of “why” that was at issue. In the context of wanting to serve God well, I focused on reading and studying scripture (as well as praying) primarily “so that” my ministry might succeed (or, not fail). Plus, I wanted to be a better Christian. A noble quest. It was after our cross-county move and with no ministry left in the equation that I quit. I lost the motivation to continue.

I see “Why” and motivation as quite similar. The definition of motivation implies the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way. My motivation was to succeed and to be a good Christian. Two issues with that:

  1. God never asks us to be successful. He only asks us to be faithful. When orphans were starving in India at a greater rate than her little orphanage could serve, Mother Theresa was asked by a reporter how she could feel any sense of success. Her response? God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful. In western thought, we have equated success and faithfulness. The sooner we figure that out (change our minds, repent), the sooner we can get on with a full life.
  2. God never asks us to be good Christians. Read the scriptures. Read the Gospels. It’s not there! The Pharisees – a sect of religious leaders in Jesus’ day – fell into the false understanding that it was their job to read and study the scriptures so that they could be good Israelites. All God ever asked of the them was loyalty to Him and thus his creation (this is the essence of the two great commandments of which Jesus spoke and the words of Micah, the prophet).

The Pharisees’ motivation was clear, but wrong. They knew their reason for acting and behaving in a particular way. And they were sincere – very sincere. But wrong. Their “why” did not line up with God’s. They were disciplined in their search of scripture, looking for life yet missed life when it was revealed through Jesus.

Likewise, I was sincere and disciplined in searching the scriptures, but for wrong reasons. The Celebration of Discipline was initially an unhealthy read for me. I thought I was to try to conquer the disciplines (succeed). As I strove to succeed at practicing the disciplines, it felt like I was spinning plates. At some point, I listened to a cassette tape by the author, Richard Foster, talking about the disciplines, reminding us that the purpose of the disciplines is to place us in front of the Father so he can transform us. THAT was transformative and freeing! Once again, my “why” had shifted.

Oh that we could have eyes to see and ears to hear that much of what motivates us is cultural and not biblical. Father, show us where we might be missing the mark.