What does the Hebrew word Hesed mean?
One of the Hebrew words for ‘love’ is hesed (חסד, pronounced kheh-sed”), which is actually a difficult word to translate into English. That is because it can have a range of meanings. Theologian John Oswalt said hesed is “… a completely undeserved kindness and generosity”.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken”. (Isaiah 54:10)
Hesed is not just a feeling, but an action. It “intervenes on behalf of loved ones and comes to their rescue”, according to author Lois Tverberg.
Hebrew Understanding of Love
Hesed is not a romantic, infatuation kind of love. It is a faithful, reliable love. When a wife prays for years for her husband to know God. It is parents lovingly caring for their autistic child. Hesed is faithful. It is loyal. And Hesed is love put to action.
And most importantly, hesed is the unfailing love God has for YOU.
It is one of the most fundamental characteristics of God, consistent with what we know about His covenantal nature. Hesed is “wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty–in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty,” elaborates Bible scholar Darrell L. Bock.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see hesed translated in a number of different ways; steadfast love, mercy, kindness, and goodness. While these synonyms develop our understanding, they only just skim the surface of this multifaceted, rich word.
Hesed – Love in Action
Perhaps the most effective way to grasp its meaning is to see hesed in action. Thankfully, examples of hesed abound throughout the Scripture.
In the book of Ruth, we meet Naomi in nothing less than a bleak situation. She is living in a foreign land and has lost not only her husband, but her two sons as well. While she has two beloved daughters-in-law, she makes the difficult decision to leave the life she and her family have established in Moab.
Naomi decides to return to her native Judah and she is ready to start afresh. To this end, Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to stay in Moab with their families, and to find new husbands.
This is a wise suggestion, because in those days women without a husband were in a vulnerable position. And these two women could most likely remarry easily – they were still young and had no children.
A Love that Extends to Loyalty
Orpah considers this, and with a heavy heart agrees to stay in Moab. Ruth however remains with Naomi. And she even further solidifies her bond with Naomi, with her now famous declaration:
“Do not urge me to leave you or return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth 1:16
Ruth had every right to start anew and pursue a husband from within her own people. However, by affirming her fidelity to Naomi and the people of Israel, Ruth chose an unknown path. She was a widow and an outsider. But she was also a foreigner from a people the Israelites had enemy history with.
She affirms how important Naomi is to her, despite these other considerations. Ruth clearly had a strong relationship with her mother-in-law, so much so that she forsakes the easier path. Her display of hesed – the love and loyalty to Naomi is just one of multiple examples found throughout the story of Ruth.
Hesed Love goes Above and Beyond
Another tangible display of the hesed love, which goes above and beyond, is an organization called Satmar Bikur Cholim, in New York City. This amazing group provides home cooked kosher meals to hospital patients and their families, free of charge, regardless of background or affiliation (no application has ever been required).
Satmar Bikur Cholim began in the 1950s with a small community of Holocaust survivors who recognized the value of supporting other survivors, as they started building a new life in the US. They wanted to help fellow survivors sustain the Jewish tradition they had before the war. And they would travel all around NYC to do just that.
They strive to maintain the same ambition as in their founding days to help whoever needs it. Preparing and delivering home cooked meals to others in the community extends beyond a simple act of kindness. You could even say it’s… lovingkindness.
Does the Hebrew word Hesed also mean Lovingkindness?
Lovingkindness is an interesting word in the English language. Built out of two other words, it combines the definitions of both and then some.
It means tenderness and consideration towards others. Those are the key words capturing the essence of lovingkindness; it is always towards others. This is an outward expression, not one of self-seeking motivation. If this sounds familiar, it is easy to understand why.
While “lovingkindness” can be considered somewhat archaic, many English Bible translations use it in Psalms. Alternatively, some translations use “steadfast love”. Try studying the Psalms with translations that use lovingkindness and you’ll discover a new depth of meaning and understanding to these passages.
Here’s a few examples to get you started:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgives all your iniquities,
heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies…” (Psalm 103:3-4 NKJV)
“Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? [or] thy faithfulness in destruction?” (Psalm 88:11 ASV)
“Let not the floodwater overflow me, nor let the deep swallow me up; and let not the pit shut its mouth on me. Hear me, O LORD, for Your lovingkindness is good; turn to me according to the multitude of Your tender mercies.” (Psalm 69:15-16 NKJV)
Each time we come across lovingkindness in these passages the Psalmist is suggesting hesed as the covenant love. Even though it’s not a word we commonly use, it has a unique way of pointing to the enduring love of God.
Hebrew Definition of Unfailing Love
“Hesed is never merely an abstract feeling of goodwill, but always entails practical action on behalf of another”, describes author and biblical scholar Dr. Will Kynes.
How can we tangibly show our love to God and His people? Hesed. It is through a hesed kind of love that we worship Him and serve others. Through the abundance of hesed that God shows us, we can in turn be abundant in our expression of hesed love for others.
This is a strengthening truth, a reliable foundation. As pastor Rick Warren said, “God’s love is like an ocean; you can see its beginning, but not its end”. Today, no matter what you face, you can rely on God’s hesed. In the best way, His love is predictable, tenacious, and unchanging.
“Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love – hesed – for you will not be shaken.” — Isaiah 54:10
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