Defining “Love”

חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)—Part 1

by on ; last featured February 14, 2017
Share:

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:

  • “abounding in goodness” (Exodus 34:6)
  • “abundant in kindness” (Nehemiah 9:17)10
  • “of great kindness” (Joel 2:13)
  • “abundant in lovingkindness” (Jonah 4:2)
  • “abounding in mercy” (Psalm 103:8)
  • “abundant in mercy” (Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:5, 15)

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?”

Footnotes

  1. This is the title of John Lennon’s famous song performed by the Beatles and released in 1967.

  2. Though used mainly of God, the word חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) is also used of human love, affection, kindness, and devotion. The related word חׇסִיד (ḥāsîḏ), describes someone who is kind, faithful, godly, devoted, or pious; or a person exhibiting these attributes, i.e. a “saint” (e.g., 1 Samuel 2:9, 2 Chronicles 6:41, Psalm 30:4 [verse 5 in the Hebrew Bible], 116:15, etc). The plural, חֲסׇדִים (ḥăsāḏîm), is a common designation for members of the Jewish religious and social movement, which begun in Eastern Europe in the mid-18th Century, with its enthusiastic devotees. Chasidic Jews are often characterised by their joy, emotion, and love of Torah (Jewish teachings), as well as their black (or navy) clothing and hats. Indeed both Jews and Christians are exhorted to be channels of God’s חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ): “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘. . . Show mercy [חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)] and compassion everyone to his brother’” (Zechariah 7:9).

  3. The meanings listed here represent the most common ways in which חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) is translated. Some scholars have emphasized one particular shade of meaning of חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), such as loyalty. And different Bible translations have their own preferred way of rendering the word: for instance, the KJV mostly uses “mercy,” the NASB “lovingkindness,” the RSV “steadfast love,” and the NIV “unfailing love.” Context also plays a part in how the term may be rendered in any given verse. But any such distinctions should be understood as small variations of a single term that is rich in meaning. The Western mindset sometimes tends to look for hair-splittingly narrow definitions, which is hardly surprising when the English language has over a million words! In contrast the Hebraic mindset is comfortable with a single word, such as (חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), holding together a rich mosaic of subtle variations or shades of meaning, which are nevertheless interconnected.

  4. As a pronunciation aid for those readers who are not familiar with Hebrew, a simplified transliteration is given (e.g., CHE-seth, in which the “ch” is pronounced like the “ch” in “Bach” or “loch,” and the bold, uppercase letters denote the stressed syllable) along with one that uses symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (e.g., ˈħeseð).

  5. Stoebe (1997, p. 449) and Zobel (1986, p. 45) state that (חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) occurs 245 times; Baer and Gordon (1996, p. 211) list the frequency at 246; the BibleWorks computer program (Version 7.0.012g, 2006) yields a figure of 247; Van Pelt and Pratico (2003, p. 11) quote 249; and Koehler and Baumgartner (2001, p. 336) have approximately 250.

    It should also be noted in passing that there are two additional occurrences of חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ)—Leviticus 20:17 and Proverbs 14:34—in which the meaning is completely different, i.e. a disgrace, reproach, or insult. Scholars usually treat חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) in these instances as a homograph (i.e., a word with the same spelling as another, but with a different meaning).

  6. This means the Greek word that is most often used in the Septuagint to translate the original Hebrew term חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) when it occurs in the Masoretic text. Actually, there are more than a dozen different Greek words which, throughout the Septuagint, are used to translate חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ). However, ἔλεος (éleos) is by far the most common, being paralleled with חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) over 200 times. In contrast, the next most common Greek match for חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), which it parallels on just nine occasions (e.g., Genesis 32:10 [verse 11 in the Hebrew Bible and Greek Septuagint]), is δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosýnē [or dikaiosúnē]), meaning righteousness, uprightness, or integrity; mercy, or charitableness; or justice, or equity.

    The process of finding a common parallel Greek word for a Hebrew term can be very helpful, particularly when trying to gain a deeper understanding of the New Testament. The New Testament has come to us in Greek, but most of its key players, including Jesus and Paul, were Jews whose Bible was the Hebrew Scriptures. It is important to realize that, regardless of the language they used or the language in which their words are recorded, their thinking was predominantly Hebraic.

    So, for instance, when in Matthew 9:13 it is recorded that Jesus told the Pharisees to learn that God desires ἔλεος (éleos), “mercy,” not sacrifice, He is clearly thinking of חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ). This can be verified since Jesus is quoting from Hosea 6:6 where the Hebrew word used for “mercy” is חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ). Furthermore, the Septuagint translation of חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ) in Hosea 6:6 is ἔλεος (éleos).

  7. Throughout this article bold typeface has been used for every English translation of חֶסֶד (ḥéseḏ), or its most common Greek equivalent ἔλεος (éleos).

  8. Psalm 117:2 and 119:76.

  9. Incidentally, this can be a helpful approach to Bible study: by comparing two or three trusted versions, you may notice slightly different wording that often reveals different aspects of the underlying original text.

  10. The way that the Masoretic text is actually written (called the Ketiv) at this point in Nehemiah 9:17 is רַב־וְחֶסֶד (raḇ-weḥeseḏ), which would mean “abundant and kindness.” However, the Masoretes indicated that it should be read (Qere) as רַב־חֶסֶד (raḇ-ḥéseḏ), meaning “abundant of [i.e., in] kindness,” as in Exodus 34:6, etc.

  11. The hymn “Count Your Blessings,” by Rev. Johnson Oatman, Jr., first appeared in Songs for Young People, published in 1897. An alternative last line is, “Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.”

  12. The Jewish Talmud (Menachoth 43b) states: “It was taught: R. Meir used to say, A man is bound to say one hundred blessings daily . . .” (Judaic Classics Library [Version 3.4]: Deluxe Edition / Soncino Talmud & Classics Collection. Brooklyn, New York: Judaica Press).

  13. In Psalm 100:5 the NKJV translates לְעוֺלׇם חַסְדּוֺ (leʿôlām ḥasdô) a little differently, but with the same sense: “His mercy is everlasting.” In Psalm 136:3 the Hebrew spelling is very slightly changed, לְעֺלׇם חַסְדּוֺ (leʿōlām ḥasdô), but the meaning is identical.

  14. Similar wording occurs in 1 Chronicles 16:41; 2 Chronicles 5:13, 7:3, 7:6, and 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psalm 136:2–3, and 136:26; and Jeremiah 33:11.

Newsletter

Get the latest answers emailed to you or sign up for our free print newsletter.

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390