Part 1 of 3 on “God’s Love” from Answers in Genesis

23 Feb

Defining “Love”

חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)—Part 1

by John C. P. Smith on May 8, 2015; last featured February 14, 2017

According to John Lennon, “All you need is love!”1

Certainly we all need love. But whose love? And is it really all you need?

Is human affection sufficient? Is the love of a spouse, parent, child, sibling, relative, or friend enough to meet all your needs? Love such as this can be truly wonderful. I know full well! I’ve been happily married for more than 20 years and have six loving children.

But the love of fellow humans doesn’t last forever. It wavers and sometimes fails. It may be tainted by selfishness or pride. Try though it might, it cannot heal every disease or every broken heart. It can’t cure every addiction or transform all wayward behavior. Ultimately it can’t help us avoid the consequences of death.

But the love of God can do all of these things!

The Quality of God’s Love

The word חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), occurring around 250 times in the Old Testament, is the main term used to describe the love of God.2 But to translate חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) simply as “love” doesn’t adequately convey its richness and depth. The love of God far surpasses that of humans. His חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) incorporates mercy, kindness, goodness, grace, and loyalty—and each aspect finds its supreme expression in Him.

Range of Meaning3 mercy, kindness, lovingkindness, goodness, grace, graciousness, love, steadfast love, unfailing love, faithfulness, loyalty
Pronunciation4 Biblical Hebrew: CHE-seth (ˈħeseð)
Modern Hebrew: CHE-sed (ˈχesed or ˈħesed)
Occurrences in the Hebrew Old Testament5 about 250
First occurrence Genesis 19:19
Strong’s number/Goodrick & Kohlenberger number 2617/2876
Root letters חסד (ḥsḏ)
Also derived from the same root חָסִיד (ḥāsîḏ) = kind, faithful, godly, devout, devoted, pious; person exhibiting these attributes, saint
Greek word most often paralleled with חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)6 ἔλεος (éleos) = pity, mercy, compassion

To try to get this breadth of meaning across in translation is challenging. One approach is to combine two words. For example, the NASB predominantly renders חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) as “lovingkindness,” the RSV as “steadfast love,” and the NIV as “unfailing love.”7 The NKJV, like the KJV, usually translates חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) with the single word “mercy,” though in a couple of verses it uses the two-word phrase “merciful kindness.”8 In two verses where חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) occurs twice, the NKJV uses different English words:

And Solomon said: “You have shown great mercy [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] . . . ; You have continued this great kindness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] . . . .” (1 Kings 3:6)

Mercy [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] and truth preserve the king, and by lovingkindness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] he upholds his throne. (Proverbs 20:28)

Seeing the different ways in which חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) is translated helps to build up a deeper understanding of God’s love.9

The Magnitude of God’s Love

It’s not just in quality that God’s love is supreme; it’s also in magnitude. Here’s what God said about Himself, including the abundance of His חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), when He appeared in a very special way to Moses on Mount Sinai:

And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . . .” (Exodus 34:6–7)

The words “abounding in goodness” here are a translation of the Hebrew רַב־חֶסֶד (raḇ-ḥéseḏ), a phrase which occurs eight times in Scripture, always with reference to the Lord. Once again, the variety of English wording used to convey this single Hebrew couplet sheds light on its rich meaning, as is here exemplified by the NKJV renderings:

Unlike the English noun “love,” חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) can comfortably be used in the plural, חֲסָדִים (ḥăsāḏîm), reminding us that authentic, faithful love is composed of numerous, practical acts of kindness.

I will mention the lovingkindnesses [חֲסָדִים (ḥăsāḏîm)] of the Lord and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has bestowed on them according to His mercies, according to the multitude of His lovingkindnesses [חֲסָדִים (ḥăsāḏîm)]. (Isaiah 63:7)

This is reminiscent of the popular old hymn, “Count Your Blessings,”11 whose refrain went,

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Similarly, Jews are encouraged to recite 100 blessings daily.12 Certainly, if we try, we can all think of many ways in which God’s faithful love, kindness, goodness, and mercy have touched our lives and blessed us. Indeed, if our eyes are open we will see that

. . . the earth is full of the goodness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] of the Lord. (Psalm 33:5)

For His merciful kindness [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] is great toward us . . . . Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117:2)

Having a thankful heart can dramatically transform our outlook and attitudes, as well as make a positive impact on those around us.

The Longevity of God’s Love

Another key aspect of God’s amazing חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), in addition to its quality and magnitude, is its longevity. The phrase “His mercy endures forever” is used in the NKJV to translate לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ (le ôlām ḥasdô), which occurs no less than 42 times.13 God’s kindness is not transient. His love is faithful and never grows cold. This is exceedingly good news and another great reason to give thanks:

Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] endures forever. (1 Chronicles 16:34; Psalm 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 118:29, 136:1)14

We had this complete Hebrew phrase skillfully worked into our family piano by means of marquetry to remind and inspire us to make music and songs that praise and honor the Lord for all His goodness and great love.

Hodu l'Adonai

Photo courtesy of Hannah P. Smith

Over half of the occurrences of the phrase לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ (le ’ôlām ḥasdô), “His mercy endures forever,” occur in Psalm 136, with one instance for each of the 26 verses. While the large middle section of this Psalm relates to God’s acts of kindness toward the nation of Israel (vv. 10–24), the beginning and end of the Psalm are about His love and mercy toward all, even as the sovereign Creator. We can indeed be eternally thankful that the “God of heaven” (v. 26) who is the “God of gods” (v. 2) and “Lord of lords” (v. 3) and “who alone does great wonders” (v. 4), “who by wisdom made the heavens” (v. 5), “laid out the earth above the waters” (v. 6), “who made great lights” (v. 7), “[t]he sun” (v. 8) and “[t]he moon and stars” (v. 9) “is good!” (v. 1). Despite His greatness, and despite our waywardness, in His compassion He has been mindful of “our lowly estate” (v. 23). His lovingkindness has compelled Him to stoop and rescue His people (v. 24)—whether Jews from slavery in Egypt, or Christians from bondage to sin.

Coming Up Next

In Part 2 we will answer the question, “Is the God of the Old Testament a God of Love?”

_______________________________

For the past while we have followed the construction and opening of The Ark Encounter, a life size model of the Ark as might have been built by Noah. Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis sight has become one of the sources of joy for us and though we have copied verbatim from his site this document and all the links on this page are intact. We have not, nor do we ever endorse another person but hope that you are able to glean encouragement from Ken that will strengthen you in your walk through this world.

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