Definition of Grace and the Hebrew Meaning of Favor
The most common Hebrew word for “grace” is חן (hen). However, sometimes it is translated into a different English word, like ‘precious’ or ‘valuable’. At the same time, if we look for ‘grace’ in an English Bible, we will quickly discover that the Hebrew original does not always use hen.
So, how do we make sense out of that?
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The Hebrew Word for Grace
Let’s start at the beginning. The first use of the word ‘grace’ in the Bible is found in Genesis 6:8: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.”
The Hebrew word used here is indeed hen. Its derivative, hanan (חנן), is often translated as “to be gracious” or “have mercy “. In Psalm 6:2, the Psalmist says,
“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.”
However, for example in Proverbs 17:8, the same word – hen, is translated as precious, something of beauty and value: “A gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him that hath it…” (KJV, Proverbs 17:8).
You have probably heard ‘grace’ explained as unmerited favor. And in the Bible, it is often paired with another great word, mercy, which of course, has a different Hebrew equivalent. So, what’s the difference? And in what way is each one of them unique? Let’s look to the Bible for answers.
Grace in the Story of Hannah
The aforementioned word hanan is where the popular Hebrew name Hannah came from. Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel. The story of Hannah is like her namesake – full of God’s grace and mercy.
Hard pressed and bitterly provoked every day, Hannah cried out to God in her despair. She prayed for a miracle and the Lord answered. The miracle is personified in the birth of her son, Samuel, and following children. We see her relief and rejoicing recorded in 1 Samuel 2. Notice her vindication, the Lord hearing her prayer, after He took note of her suffering, and showed her grace and favor in her time of need:
“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.” (1 Samuel 2:8)
The Meaning of Hen
In the case of Hannah, grace not only entailed being favored, but it came as a relief from distress. It was a vindication in the eyes of her mockers.
Thus, the story of Hannah shows that hen, the Hebrew word for grace, is not only mercy and favor. But it brings healing, vindication, and strength. While mercy is the removal of punishment or suffering, grace goes beyond. It is a gift that we neither deserve nor can earn. It is something that only God can provide us with since He is the source from which it flows.
Hannah’s shame for being infertile in a society that valued childbearing in women above all else put her in despair. On top of that, she was – in modern terms – bullied by her husband’s other wife. Hannah felt dishonored and humiliated.
But God not only took away Hannah’s distress – which would mean He showed her mercy. He raised her up out of the ashes and gave her a seat of honor and dignity among her family and peers. He showed her grace.
The Mercy and Grace of God
Exodus 35:6-7 gives another glimpse of grace and mercy in action. This verse connects perfectly to our earlier scripture Psalm 145:8-9.
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
The word for merciful here is rachum (ra-khum) which encompasses compassion, mercy and forgiveness. And the word for gracious is hanun, originating from the same root as hanan. In Hebrew, these two words together read like poetry: “Adonai, Adonai, rachum v’hanun… slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth.”
Grace and Compassion
A common refrain in Jewish liturgy, emphasizes not only God’s great power and might, but His grace and compassion. Older Bible translations use the word ‘lovingkindness’ in this context. In Hebrew, these verses include words hesed (translated also as ‘love’) and rachamim.
Psalm 145:8-9 beautifully expresses these gentle virtues of the Lord:
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and great in mercy.
The Lord is good to all, And His mercies are over all His works.
How does reading these verses make you feel? They sound so pleasant and spiritual, almost otherworldly. But how often do we remember these verses when we become angry at ourselves, or others? When our loved ones don’t understand us or when our work wears us down… Or when the day just isn’t going our way – you hit every red light, stain your shirt, losing your keys.
When our fuse is short, and our anger is hot… How often do we remember that our God is gracious and compassionate, merciful and full of grace? It is easy to intellectually accept this Biblical truth about the nature of our God. Yet how often do we live it and experience it for ourselves?
What is the point of Hesed (Love), Rachamim (Mercy), and Hen (Grace)?
The answer is very simple—God wants to restore us, to bring us back into relationship with Him and those He has placed in our lives. In Romans 2:4, the Apostle Paul says that God’s kindness is meant to bring us back to repentance. But His will is grace and favor. Exodus 34: 6 concludes:
“Adonai, merciful (rachum), and gracious (hanun), slow to anger, abounding in love (hesed) and truth (emet).”
The end result is that God’s love (hesed) is tied to His truth (emet). Because of his emet (truth), his anger does burn hot against sin and injustice, which is an act of graciousness. Because no act of wickedness will go unpunished, and goodness and righteousness will not go unrewarded.
But God is also slow to anger, because He is gracious. The truth isn’t to shame us, but to bring us closer to Him. The beauty in all of this is that our salvation, and I would add our spiritual growth, “is by faith, through grace, and not by works…It is a gift of God, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Brought Near by the Blood
Salvation in Messiah Jesus – God’s mercy, goodness, gentleness, and grace in bodily form – is available to everyone, everywhere, at any time.
Paul continues to tell us in Ephesians chapter 2, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13)
No matter how far gone we are, we can stand with confident assurance that God’s hesed, rachamim and hen will never betray us. His love, mercy, and grace. With a sincere heart, we can always turn back to Him. He will remove our ashes and our shame, lift our heads. The Hebrew word for grace, hen, points to God giving us dignity and peace.
And He will restore us. The apostle Paul gives us this assurance in Romans 5:
“…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5: 8,10-11)
Favor By Grace Through Faith
God chose to set His grace upon us, to set us free from death and sin. He gives us life everlasting, both in the present and future age, not in accordance with our actions, but by His grace alone. This is the message of the Hebrew word for grace.
As the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-10:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes