(December 12, 2016) Dr Jim McClure, respected theologian, continues his series on selected scripture words…
The root of one of the most common Hebrew words for love is ‘aheb’ which occurs about 250 times in the Old Testament. In many ways its meaning is similar to the English word ‘love’ in that it has a wide range of applications. However, our focus in this study is on another Hebrew word, ‘chesed’ which has been translated by a variety of words in the KJV including mercy, kindness, goodness, favour, pity and loving-kindness (a word made up by Miles Coverdale in the early 16th century).
Sometimes it has been translated as faithfulness, grace, leal-love, steadfast love and troth. The fact that so many words have been employed to translate ‘chesed’ reveals that it is extremely difficult to find an equivalent English word and every attempt is ultimately inadequate.
Nevertheless it is important that we try to understand what ‘chesed’ means because it is one of the great words of the Old Testament and theologically is charged with significance. In Psalms it is associated with faithfulness (’emunah) 11 times; for example, ‘Your love, (chesed) O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness (‘emunah) to the skies’ (Psalm 36:5).
Chesed’ is also sometimes associated with the word (‘oz) – ‘strength.’ There is strength in chesed-love – strength to persevere, strength to encourage and support, and strength to make hard decisions. Following the great deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, Moses sang, ‘In your unfailing love (chesed) you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength (‘oz) you will guide them to your holy dwelling’ (Exodus 15:13).
We find this same association in two consecutive verses in Psalm 59, verses 16 and 17, ‘But I will sing of thy might (‘oz); I will sing aloud of thy steadfast love (chesed) in the morning. … O my Strength (‘oz), I will sing praises to thee, for thou, O God, art my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love (chesed)’
The word chesed is not about emotional response; it is about a love which is established on strength and inner resolve and which does not waver. It is strong, secure and stable.
1. Chesed is love that is covenantal
A key to understanding the meaning of chesed in the Old Testament is the frequency with which it occurs with the Hebrew word (berith) which means ‘covenant.’ In twenty six passages the words are so closely related that they are practically interchangeable.
For example, the first reference in which they occur together is Deuteronomy 7:9, ‘Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant (chesed) and steadfast love (berith) with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations’ (RSV). The parallelism of Hebrew poetry underlines that relationship in Psalm 89:28, ‘I will maintain my love (chesed) to him forever, and my covenant (berith) with him will never fail’ (RSV).
Because of the relationship between the two words some translators use the phrase ‘covenant love’ to translate chesed. It speaks particularly of God’s special love for his people, Israel, a love based on the covenant he made with them on Sinai. Chesed-love is about commitment and loyalty between those who are in relationship with each other. Because of the wealth of meaning that lies behind chesed, any single definition is inadequate; however we get close to an understanding of it if we call it ‘loyal-love.’ God’s chesed is his non-negotiable, faithful and loving loyalty to Israel with whom he made a covenant.
Yet, when his people have broken their side of the covenant, it has appeared to them that God had removed his chesed from them. In the days of Jeremiah God said, ‘I have withdrawn my blessing, my love (chesed) and my pity from this people’ (Jeremiah 16:5). Although God’s covenant with them was an everlasting one (Genesis 17:7) yet the fact remains that those who failed to fulfil their covenantal obligations cut themselves off from the blessings of that relationship. Yet the withdrawing of God’s chesed has never been permanent. In Isaiah 54:8 God said, ‘In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love (chesed) I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer’ (RSV).
Chesed, then, is about relationship. It is important to remember this because we can make the mistake of substituting religious practices for relationship with God. However religious we may be in our actions or speech, if there is not a deepening in the intimacy of our relationship with God, then our religiosity becomes an offence to God. Notice in Amos 5:21-24 the vehemence with which God rejects religious practice when the heart is not centred on him. And hear what God says in Hosea 6:6, ‘I desire steadfast love (chesed), and not sacrifice, the knowledge [that is, intimate relationship] of God, rather than burnt offerings’ (RSV).
2. Chesed is defined in the Psalms
The profound meaning and significance of chesed is defined throughout the scriptures, but in the Psalms particularly we find many of those definitions which are also reflected in other Old Testament books. There are so many definitions that we shall look at only a few and we shall use the English phrase ‘God’s loyal love’ as we consider them.
God’s loyal love is…
And it is so described in Psalm 17:7 and 31:21 where we read, ‘He showed his wonderful love (chesed) to me …’ The Hebrew word for ‘wonderful’ means that it is quite distinctive – there is nothing like it!
b) Ever present
David, in Psalm 23:6, made this confident statement, ‘Surely goodness and love (chesed) will follow me all the days of my life.’
He was expressing his conviction that in any and every situation in life, God’s loyal love was always present as a consequence of the covenant relationship between him and God.
c) Always surrounding
Psalm 32:10, ‘… the Lord’s unfailing love (chesed) surrounds the man who trusts in him.’ His chesed encompasses those who have a trusting relationship with him so that whatever we do and wherever we go, God’s loyal love remains with us.
Although Hebrew theology acknowledged the fact of God’s ownership of the earth he had created, yet they also had the idea that, because of their unique relationship with him, they had an exclusive claim on him and his blessings. Psalm 33:5 challenges that concept, ‘the earth is full of his unfailing love (chesed).’ It is not just to be found in Israel but throughout the world.
In emphasising the fact that chesed is matchless, the psalmist considers it in connection with the most exalted thing that he can think of – the heavens! So he wrote, ‘Your love, (chesed) O Lord, reaches to the heavens …’ (Psalm 36:5). There is nothing that compares with it.
f) Quick to pardon
‘For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy (chesed) unto all them that call upon thee’ (Psalm 86:5 RSV). This readiness of God to forgive as an expression of his chesed is beautifully expressed in Micah 7:18, ‘Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy (chesed).’
g) Immense in its essence
Psalm 103:11 tells us, ‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love (chesed) for those who fear him …’
This comparison is used to help us grasp the enormous scale of chesed. How can we measure the distance between the earth and the heavens? How can we measure the greatness of God’s loyal love? It is immeasurable, limitless, beyond measure.
h) Immense in its duration
How long will God extend his chesed towards us? What are its limits? The psalmist answers that question in Psalm 103:17: ‘But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love (chesed) is with those who fear him …’
God’s loyal love knows no limits. It is one of God’s attributes and as such it is eternal. In Psalm 136, which has 26 verses, every verse ends with the phrase – ‘His love (chesed) endures forever.’ In this way the psalmist is stressing his conviction that chesed is permanent.
i) Immense in its quantity
Psalm 33:5 says, ‘the earth is full of his unfailing love (chesed).’ No part of the world is untouched by his chesed. It is everywhere in full measure. Even though men and nations may reject and deny him, God remains committed to his world and his chesed continues abundantly to be poured out.
j) Can be understood
Although the meaning of chesed is vast and deep, yet it can be understood, according to Psalm107:43(RSV): ‘Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the loving-kindness (chesed) of the Lord.’ It is ‘understood’ in the sense of being experienced, acknowledged and appreciated. We may not be able fully to explain or totally to define chesed, but we may understand what it means to live in such a relationship with God that we can consciously enjoy his love and the sense of security and comfort it brings.
3. Chesed is demonstrated in Ruth
The Book of Ruth is one of the beautiful love stories in the Bible. But it is much more than that. Through that apparently simple story great themes are expounded such as the providence of God, the work of the redeemer, the foreshadowing of gentiles being included in God’s work of salvation (Ruth was a gentile and in Jewish worship the book of Ruth is read during the Pentecost festival – note that the door to gentiles was flung open fifty days after Christ’s resurrection on the day of Pentecost.)
One further theme which is expounded with great clarity is that of chesed – although the word itself appears only three times in the book. Each time it was spoken by Naomi; first (1:8) to both her daughters-in-law and on the next two occasions to Ruth (2:20; 3:10.)
Although the word chesed is not prominent in Ruth, the story itself is a wonderful exposition of its meaning and practice particularly in the way it may be expressed towards other people, and especially within the family. These themes are also found elsewhere in the Bible, for example, in Israel’s protection of Rahab (Joshua 2:12) and in David’s taking care of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:7) but in the book of Ruth the working out of chesed is vividly portrayed. This book exhibits the essential relationship-oriented nature of chesedIn fact, it could be argued that all the leading characters in the book act with chesed. We will take them in turn.
Following the death of her sons, Naomi decided to return to Judah. As her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, accompanied Naomi on the journey back, Naomi, knowing that life for them would be difficult, urged them to return home and to marry again. She said to them, ‘May the Lord show kindness (chesed) to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband’ (Ruth 1:8-9). Ruth chose to stay with her mother-in-law, and even though Naomi had no obligation to do so, she sought to find a new husband for Ruth. Those acts of compassionate and loving concern for her daughters-in-law showed chesed in action.
Ruth, the Moabite, made one of the greatest confessions of ‘loyal love’ that has ever been made, when she said to Naomi, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me’ (Ruth 1:16-17). Although Ruth was not obliged to remain with her mother-in-law, she both expressed and demonstrated chesed when she sacrificed all that was precious to her in her unwavering faithfulness to Naomi.
The character of Boaz helps us to understand the meaning of the kinsman-redeemer, but it also gives us an insight into another aspect of chesed. Under Jewish law the man, who had the responsibility to marry a widow, was the one who was the nearest kinsman. Boaz was not the nearest kinsman, but when Ruth’s nearest kinsman reneged on his duty, Boaz stepped in. He was not required to marry Ruth but in ‘loyal love’ he not only accepted that responsibility, which included the purchase of the land that Naomi had for sale, but also the commitment that their first born son would perpetuate the family name of Ruth’s deceased husband. This willingness to go beyond the requirements of responsibility is a characteristic of chesed.
Although God is not greatly in evidence in the book of Ruth, nevertheless we can see his providential hand behind the events. In fact, in hindsight we see the broader sweep of God’s chesed for humanity, for Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world and the manifestation of God’s chesed, was a descendant of Ruth and Boaz. God’s loyal-love, therefore, was a significant factor underlying the story of Ruth.
4. Chesed is declared in Hosea
The book of Hosea is another wonderful story of love, but it is about love that is accompanied by pain. The setting is the marriage relationship between Hosea and Gomer. Hosea married a woman who was an adulteress and her adultery led Hosea to believe that he was not the father of her children. On leaving home Gomer became a prostitute. However Hosea was instructed by God to win her back again through his chesed, so he sought for her and bought her out of slavery. Despite all that Gomer had done to him and all the anguish she had caused him, Hosea still loved her and could not terminate the relationship.
Through the tragedy and the pain of his covenant relationship of marriage with Gomer, Hosea learned much about the covenant relationship between God and his people and realised how much God desired the return of his people and wanted to have a loving relationship with them. Yet Israel continued to act as Gomer did and God made this charge against them, ‘There is no faithfulness, no love (chesed), no acknowledgment of God in the land’ (Hosea 4:1).
Like Gomer, the people seemed persistently to be unwilling to be faithful to God, and he accused them, ‘Your love (chesed) is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears’ (Hosea 6:4).
One moment the people of Israel pledged their loyal-love to him, and the next moment they were being unfaithful to him. Their (chesed) was fickle. Such an abuse of chesed is tantamount to adultery and it was this with which God charged them: ‘They are all adulterers’ (Hosea 7:4). Ironically they had the pretence of a marriage relationship – they held their services of worship, sacrificed their animals, prayed their prayers and observed their holy days. They maintained the appearance of a covenant relationship that was only external, and God addressed that in Hosea 6:6 by saying, ‘For I desire mercy (chesed), not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.’
The book of Hosea reveals that God feels the pain and burden of rejection. But despite the persistent rebellion of his people against him, God could do no other than to keep on loving them for he had established a covenant with them that could never be annulled. This is expressed most powerfully in Hosea 2:19 where God says to Israel, his bride, ‘I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love (chesed) and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.’
The pain of chesed that has been defiled is seen in all its horror in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, the Son of God.
5. Chesed is related to the New Covenant
Here is the problem – if the people with whom he entered a covenant relationship and to whom he has shown ‘loyal-love’ persistently fail to fulfil their side of the covenant relationship by loving him, what can be done?
God’s answer was the establishing of a New Covenant. In Jeremiah 31:31-33 this New Covenant is foreshadowed: ‘“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”’
The old covenant, written on stone, had clearly failed – and people considered that external religious practices were an acceptable substitute for chesed – but the new covenant was to be established within – ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.’
In Ezekiel 36:26 we find a comment that reinforces this idea: ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’
The new covenant was ratified by the blood of Christ on the cross. The substitutionary death of the Son of God revealed, as nothing else ever has or will, the wonderful vastness of God’s chesed. There is a similarity between the Hebrew word chesed and the Greek word agape. And about agape Paul has written about ‘how wide and long and high and deep is the love (agape) of Christ … this love (agape) that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:18-19).
He also asked the rhetorical questions, ‘Who shall separate us from the love (agape) of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love (agape) of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:35, 37-39).
The new covenant was first of all for Israel and Judah, but – and here is a major difference from the old covenant – it was not to be limited to them. The new covenant would include both Jews and Gentiles and pull down the walls of separation. This was one of the major issues confronting the early church which was essentially Jewish; what is the status of gentiles who have accepted Jesus by faith? Peter was confronted by that in a dramatic way (Acts 10) and, in reporting his experience to the other apostles, concluded, ‘If God gave them [gentiles] the same gift he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God’ (Acts 11:17).
Later, the decision of the church made at the apostolic council in Jerusalem sealed the matter when James said, ‘It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God’ (Acts 15:19). The new covenant, which flowed from God’s chesed, established by the shedding of Christ’s blood and entered into on the basis of God’s grace and our faith, expressed a universality that was missing from the old covenant, and the early church, to its credit, acknowledged that.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives. Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage will be available in an electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks (as is Dr Jim’s well-researched Grace Revisited) and is offered free.
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