This passage contains what is for me, one of the most beautiful words of the Bible. The Hebrew word is hesed (although it helps to use a little phlegm when you pronounce it). It is a word so rich with meaning that no one English word can capture it. Various translations render it “covenant love” or “steadfast love” or “unfailing love” or “mercy,” this list goes on. It is the extravagant love of God towards His people that causes us to trust Him without reservation.
The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament has a wonderful article on this word and it points out three aspects of hesed. It is active, it is social and it is enduring. Let’s look at each.
Hesed is active. It is not just a feeling God has about us. It is a love that leads to action. Years ago a book was written on why bad things happen to good people and the author concluded that while God loves us, He does not have the power to intervene in our lives and prevent bad things from happening. That is not the God of the Bible. In hesed, God is our shield and our protector. And even when bad things happen to us, we know that in hesed God causes all things to work together for our good (Rom 8:28). Nothing can separate is from His hesed.
Hesed is social. God’s love is not a theoretical love, His hesed is directed toward His people. In hesed we are the apple of His eye (Ps 17:8). We are inscribed on the palm of His hand (Is 49:16). He could no more forget us than a nursing mother could forget her child (Is 49:15). I will admit that there are days when it may feel that God has forgotten us, but that is just a feeling and not a reality. Hesed makes it impossible for Him to forget or to abandon us.
Hesed is enduring. God says that His hesed endures to a thousand generations and that He lavishes His hesed on those who love Him and obey His commands (Deut 7:9). A “generation” to the Hebrews was about 40 years, so a thousand generations is the same as saying for an eternity. I have known Christians who believe that it is so easy to fall from God’s grace that their state flower should be the daisy (now he love me, now he doesn’t, now he loves me, now he doesn’t.) A human relationship could not survive such uncertainty so it makes it doubly difficult to grow in a relationship with God if we are never certain of His love. Hesed tells us that we can be certain. To a thousand generations we can be certain.
We must note, especially in today’s moral climate, that hesed is related to obedience. God’s hesed is to a thousand generations to those who keep His commands but “He does not hesitate to destroy those who reject Him” (Deut 7:10). But that’s not unconditional love!!!!!!! That is true because today we define unconditional love as me doing whatever I want to do and God having to accept and love me anyway. That is a distortion of the truth about God’s love.
Hesed contains with it the idea of a covenant and that is why it is often translated as “covenant love.” Let’s consider the idea of the marriage covenant to show how love and keeping the covenant are connected. I have a covenant with my wife Beth and we love each other unconditionally, for better or for worse. Can I argue therefore that because we have unconditional love for each other that I am free to beat her or to cheat on her and she is still required to love me unconditionally? Of course not. Those actions would violate the covenant, be a rejection of hesed and (assuming I survived) Beth could not be accused of being unloving if she decided to prosecute me. Back to the first point about hesed. It is an action, not an emotion and so you can tell by someone’s actions if their love is true, if it is hesed, or if it us just an emotion. Thus Jesus said, “if you love me you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15).
So God’s hesed acts on our behalf, it focuses on us as the object of His love and it endures forever. Let His hesed remove any guilt and condemnation from your life and let it cause you to rest secure in His love.