This is a truly wonderful word. It is a Biblical word that appears over two hundred and forty times in the Hebrew Scriptures, twenty six times in Psalm 136 alone! What makes it special is that, over all the main Bible translations, there are documented over a hundred and sixty different possible meanings of chesed.
The King James version (as well as the Jewish Publication Society) plumps mainly for mercy. The New International Version veers towards love, the NAS prefers lovingkindness, the ESV has steadfast love, as does the NRV. Each of these translations, as well as all others, also have a whole list of secondary meanings too.
Apparently, it’s all down to context, the circumstances that surround its use. Yet, the question persists, what is its core meaning? After all, as with most Hebrew words, it is based on a three letter root word, from which one ought to gather its primary meaning (for more on this subject you could read God’s Signature). There are two aspects to chesed, a big meaning and a little meaning. The big meaning is when the word is used in the context of God’s dealings with man and the little meaning is used for man’s dealings with man. First the big meaning …
Before we do this, I think the major point here that the theologians seem to be missing, is that we have no right to dissect our God and explore His character and motivations, neither do we have the mental facilities to do so. We can try our best, which is the inclination of the Greek Mindset, but the Hebrew Mindset would just shrug its shoulders and say, God is God, leave Him alone and just bask in His Greatness. Perhaps the reason why chesed is so flexible and confusing to interpret, is that it was never meant to be interpreted. It is just an expression of His Godness.
Yet, if there’s one word that could possibly be the best fit, it is magnanimity, going above and beyond what is expected. Let’s think more about this …
God does not live in a box, or a church or temple, He cannot be confined by us in space, neither can He be confined by us in character. There’s a perfectly good reason why not all are healed, not all are saved, good people don’t always flourish all the time or bad people get away with bad things some of the time. The reason is God, the God who does things His way, for His purposes, in His time. This is the God of the unexpected and also the God who, by our standards, is forever going above and beyond the expected, through His chesed.
First here are six familiar examples of His chesed in the Psalms:
But I trust in your unfailing love (chesed); my heart rejoices in your salvation. (Psalm 13:5)
The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love (chesed) (Psalm 33:5)
Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord; may your love (chesed) and faithfulness always protect me. (Psalm 40:11)
Because your love (chesed) is better than life, my lips will glorify you. (Psalm 63:3)
I will declare that your love (chesed) stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself. (Psalm 89:2)
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love (chesed) endures forever. (Psalm 136:1)
The NIV uses the word love in these instances because the English language doesn’t have a stronger, deeper word that could do justice, so love is the best fit, just as the KJV uses the word mercy, the NAS uses lovingkindness and so on. Perhaps we should simply use the word chesed, as a new word in the lexicon, as that unknowable characteristic of God whereby He does the most wonderful things that we simply can’t get our heads around?
We don’t have to think hard to look for practical examples of God’s chesed to us, times when He has gone above and beyond the expected.
He showed His chesed when:
The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” (Genesis 26:2-5)
“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”But Moses sought the favour of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, of whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32:9-14)
Nevertheless, for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah. He had promised to maintain a lamp for David and his descendants forever. (2 Kings 8:19)
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
All of these were way beyond anything we would do, which is why they are aspects of a divine quality, chesed, that we could never grasp with our human minds.
This is an extract from the book, Shalom, available for £10 at https://www.sppublishing.com/shalom-239-p.asp
Which word describes God most thoroughly?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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