Hesed is one of the most ubiquitous and important principles of the Old Testament, defining both the nature of God and the theological framework of Godâ€™s relationship with human beings. The primary qualities of hesed include loyalty, kindness, justice, and grace. Hesed also describes the reciprocity of Godâ€™s covenant with human beings. God addresses and responds to sin, transgression, and rebellion with the principles of hesed throughout the Old Testament, including a righteous combination of forgiveness and fairness. In fact, hesed can also be described as a paternal form of love, one that flows freely and unconditionally from parent to child, which is filled with grace and kindness and yet which is also willing and able to guide, teach, and even to punish when necessary. Hesed is significant from a theological standpoint but also an ethical one because it showcases how human beings can respond to moral turpitude in biblical ways.
Principles of Love
One of the ways hesed is distinguished from other types of love in the Old Testament is via the quality of loyalty, expressed both by God and by His people. Hesed is mentioned twice in Exodus 34:67, in which God reveals Himself to Moses as the Lord who abounds in loyal love and faithful commitment to His people. Thus, hesed is linked conceptually to the covenants between God and His people, which are bilateral agreements rooted in fidelity and love (Sproul, 2013). Furthermore, Godâ€™s loyal love for His people can become an ideal for human loyalty, steadfastness, and commitment. Associated concepts include devotion, which is linked to the mutual respect required to maintain loyalty and fulfill oneâ€™s promises. Loyalty and love expressed as hesed are also unconditional and authentic (Cooper, 2005). There is no deception with hesed, and there are no boundaries or limitations on Godâ€™s love. Furthermore, hesed is eternal and enduring: the nature of a covenant that is designed to persist over time with the mutual commitment on the part of both parties.
The Practice of Loving Kindness
Another key feature of hesed is taking action based on love and loyalty. Hesed is expressed â€œnot 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,â€ (Duguid, 2011, p. 1). Hesed is acting with loving kindness, which God exemplifies. Furthermore, God encourages His people to practice loving kindness towards others. Hesed is â€œnever merely an abstract feeling of goodwill but always entails practical action on behalf of another,â€ (Kynes, 2010, p. 2). Loving kindness can also be expressed or experienced as mercy: the mercy shown by God or by other human beings (Duguid, 2011; Kynes, 2010).
Although the first instances of the term hesed in the Old Testament are in Godâ€™s own self-referential statements when revealing Himself to Moses, hesed becomes a broader and more complex concept as the events of the Bible unfold. Hesed is not just about Godâ€™s unqualified, unconditional, loyal, and kind love for His people, but also the type of love that can and should be practiced between human beings. All human relationships entail a degree of mutuality, even those that are hierarchical. Therefore, hesed is set forth as the guiding principle of human relationships even though it is most commonly connected to â€œthe vertical plane of Godâ€™s relationship with people,â€ (Kynes, 2010, p. 2).
Justice, Grace, and Responding to Rebelliousness With Hesed
Loyalty itself requires reciprocity. Hesed is a bilateral flow of love between God and His people. Because hesed is relational by definition, one or both parties are in the position of being able to break the commitment or to be disloyal. However, given the inherent inequities between human beings and God and the verticality of their relationship, human beings are the only party capable of transgression. Transgression, breaking the covenant, and rebelliousness are human behaviors, not godly ones. Throughout the Old Testament are instances of broken covenants, sin, and rebellion.
Particularly after God reveals the terms of the Covenant with Moses through the Ten Commandments, the stipulations of the relationship are made abundantly clear. God frames the relationship clearly in terms of â€œif you do this, then I will do that,â€ saying â€œIf you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors,â€ (Deut 7:12). In return for obedience and ascription to His law, God ensures love: hesed. God promises the abundance of that love, which is expressed throughout eternity as grace and justice. God is clear that He â€œdoes not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation,â€ (Exodus 34:7). Expressed as punishment, hesed can be conceptualized as the contemporary phrase tough love. God punishes to remind human beings of their fallibility and His glory, while also coaching human beings to return to the path of righteousness for their own sake.
At times, God offers the wayward human being the opportunity for redemption via a period of penance. Punishment and penance can be viewed as integral to the concept of hesed. In the Old Testament, this can be seen most poignantly in the â€œwilderness experience,â€ when people must be lost before they can be found again (Cooper, 2005, p. 81). God occasionally dismantles the superficial tenets of a prior covenant, as he does so several times in the Old Testament but most significantly with the coming of Christ. â€œWhen His people have strayed from that revelation and begun to rely upon religion instead of His faithfulness, He has stepped in to remove their religion as a prelude to restoring their understanding of hesed,â€ heralding the new covenant with God through Jesus Christ (Cooper, 2005, p. 81). Godâ€™s ability and desire to transform the stipulations of His covenants with human beings is grounded not just in His sovereignty and omnipotence, but also the fact that hesed transcends the boundaries of mere custom, law, or dogma.
Finally, a distinguishing feature of hesed is its paternal nature. Hesed encompasses all aspects of a parental relationship, including most importantly Godâ€™s â€œdetermination to be faithful to the covenant, no matter Israelâ€™s unfaithfulness,â€ (Reid, 2013, p. 15). When children stray or disobey, parents do not stop loving them. Likewise, God never stops loving His people even when they rebel or sin. The nature of hesed is charitable and merciful, allowing for divine acts of kindness and forgiveness but also calling for discipline in the name of love, too. Parents lead their children through example, which is why hesed in the relationship between God and His people is a role model, a macrocosm, to the microcosm of the realm of human relationships. God instructs human beings to love and respect one another, to show kindness and respect to oneâ€™s parents, neighbors, friends, and fellow members of the community. Moreover, God responds to situational variables with wisdom and not with the rigidity of statutory law. In much the same way, parents have no rulebook when dealing with their children. Instead, they rely on the tutelage of God and their community, and most importantly on the sacred bond of a love grounded in the principle of hesed.
Cooper, B.A. (2005). The Biblical concept of revival in the desert and some implications for todayâ€™s church regarding the restoration of manâ€™s covenential relationship with God. Master of Theology Thesis, South Africa Theological Seminary.
Duguid, I. (2011). Loyal-love. Ligionier Ministries. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/loyal-love-hesed/
Kynes, W. (2010). Godâ€™s grace in the Old Testament: Considering the hesed of the lord. Knowing and Doing, Summer 2010, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/430
Reid, John William (2013) The love of God in biblical and Reformed theology. MTh(R) thesis.
Sproul, R.C. (2013). What is hesed? Ligionier Ministries. https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-hesed/
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