Iain Duguid writes:
In the Old Testament, ḥesed 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, ḥesed describes something that happens within an existing relationship, whether between two human beings or between God and man. In human relationships, ḥesed implies loving our neighbour, 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 ḥesed, 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 neighbour had an obligation to help a community member who was in trouble. Yet this obligation to show ḥesed 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 neighbour 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 ḥesed in the Greek Old Testament.
Similarly, ḥesed can describe loyalty to one’s obligations to God. This includes faithful actions 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 ḥasid (from ḥesed) is loyal to his God and appeals to the Lord to show him similar faithfulness in return (Pss. 4:4; 32:6). The name Hasidim has thus been ascribed to the strictest Jews in contemporary Judaism.
Yet the most precious use of the word ḥesed 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 ḥesed means in its broadest possible terms, for each line concludes with the words: “his ḥesed endures forever.” Because of the Lord’s ḥesed, He created the universe, and He rules it daily through His providence (Pss. 136:5–9, 25). Because of His ḥesed 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 destruct ion 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 ḥesed, 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 ḥesed 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 ḥesed 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 ḥesed is seen in the cross: there the true ḥasid, Jesus Christ Himself — the only human ever truly to be loyal to the Lord and to His neighbour 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 ḥesed 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).