What Does “Hesed” Love Mean to Us Today?
We are a society that is infatuated with the idea of love. When we talk about love, we often think about romantic love that is wrapped up in a “soul mate” who understands us and gives our lives meaning.
For example, I have been watching a television series for several years now that includes a love interest. Two of the main characters in the series have obviously been attracted to each other from the beginning of our acquaintance with them. However, the writers of the series wanted to draw out the romantic tension between them, so for several seasons, they were clearly drawn to each other but never acknowledged it, even to themselves. Eventually, the woman marries another and the message is clear: she married the wrong person. The man she married is not her soul mate and therefore the marriage is doomed. In the last episode I watched, she finally admitted that and determined to get a divorce, even though the man she married seems like a perfectly decent guy. Presumably, she will eventually end up with the first man she was attracted to (and the star of the show), although I’m so annoyed with them both that I don’t really care anymore.
However, the kind of love the Bible talks about is an entirely different kind of love.
It’s a love that transcends petty human emotions that bounce up and down and back and forth like a racket ball. It’s a love that concerns God and his people.
When we read the Bible, we should be constantly looking at what it tells us about God and about how he relates to his people. If we concentrate on that, we will have a much greater understanding of the big message of the Bible rather than getting caught in squabbles about minutia.
One way to do that is to look at how the Hebrew word hesed is used in the Bible. English versions of the Bible often translate that word as “steadfast love” or “loyal love.” The King James Bible translated it as lovingkindness, a word we rarely use now, so more modern translations avoid that word. However, it’s not a bad way to translate it, since hesed means much more than the limited way we generally think about love.
Hebrew scholars insist that hesed is difficult to translate into English because it communicates more than our word love does. Besides love, it also conveys mercy, grace, and kindness. It is the kind of love that Ruth displays when she refuses to leave her mother-in-law, Naomi. It’s a love that goes far beyond duty and is compelled to act because of strong commitment and affection. It’s also the kind of love that Hosea expresses for his wife, Gomer, whom he marries even though she is a prostitute and refuses to remain faithful in their marriage. So it’s a love that is steadfast and unchanging, even if the recipient doesn’t accept it. It’s the kind of love that only God can show perfectly, and he shows such love in his first interactions with the humans he made when they choose sin over obedience.
Most of all, hesed is a covenant love—a love that binds God to his people.
It is almost exclusively used as a word between God and his people Israel. God makes a commitment to Israel that they do not deserve but nevertheless benefit from. Even the example of Ruth falls into that category as she leaves her homeland and adopts the Jewish people as her own.
Hesed is not found in the New Testament, since it is a Hebrew word and the New Testament is written in Greek. Instead, the New Testament uses the word agape to convey a similar meaning. Agape love is undeserved but lavished upon us, as we see in John 3:16, where God says he loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that we can have eternal life. The idea that God loves us in spite of our sin is clear in the use of both hesed and agape.
So what does this mean for us? Why should we care what kind of love it is as long as it is love?
If we embrace the wrong definition of love, we are doomed to live by society’s flawed standards. We will think of God’s love for us and our love for others as much less than it’s meant to be. Like the star-crossed lovers in the television series, we will be seeking something that doesn’t exist and look for happiness in that which is fleeting and unstable.
We will also be forever misunderstanding God. When he disciplines us, we will see him as vindictive and cruel, rather than as loving and corrective. We’ll see the Old Testament judgments as capricious and petty, rather than a reflection of God’s deep love for his people in turning them back to what is good (him) and away from what is evil (their own sin). We will also confuse his commandments as a way to appease him, and therefore we will never find the acceptance and freedom he so longs to give us.
So what is love as conveyed in the Bible? It’s an everlasting, limitless love that is constant in spite of our flawed behavior, and it’s a love that is defined by Jesus Christ himself. As Romans 8:38–39 assures us:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Understanding this kind of hesed love has changed my relationship with others.
Before I let the truth of this love seep into my bones and marrow, I formed relationships based solely on what the other person could do for me. But when I understood that God in Christ is my only true soul mate, that freed me to form relationships based on him. As I grew in my love for God, my love for others naturally followed. I also became more patient and kind as the Holy Spirit redirected (and fulfilled) my wants and needs. That took pressure off those near me and allowed me to be more giving rather than just looking for what I could gain from someone.
I pray that you will understand God’s great and unchanging love for you, so that your security lies firmly in him.
- Consider whom God has placed in your life and how he might be prompting you to love them as he does.
- What can you do today to begin to redefine your idea of love?