The Hebrew word ‘hesed’ is an important term in the Bible that conveys the ideas of kindness, mercy, grace, and steadfast love. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: the word ‘hesed’ is used around 248 times in the Bible.
In this comprehensive article, we will examine the meaning and significance of ‘hesed’, trace its usage throughout the Old and New Testaments, explore how many times it appears overall and in different books of the Bible, and reflect on what this reveals about God’s character.
Defining the Term ‘Hesed’
The Hebrew word ‘hesed’ appears around 250 times in the Old Testament and is an important theological concept. However, translating and defining the nuances of ‘hesed’ accurately has challenged scholars for centuries.
The Range of Meanings Encompassed by Hesed
At its core, hesed refers to covenant loyalty, love, grace, mercy and kindness. However, it encompasses many shades of meaning and has been translated into English in various ways depending on context. Some key aspects of hesed include:
- Faithfulness to keep one’s word and fulfill obligations
- Going beyond what duty requires
- Loyal love and deep affection
- Compassion and mercy
Hesed is reciprocal – both parties in a relationship have responsibilities. It also has present and future dimensions, reflecting both past loyalty and ongoing commitment. The range of meanings within hesed shows how complex Biblical concepts can be.
Translation Challenges and Interpretations
There is no single English word that fully captures the richness of hesed. Translations often alternate between loyalty, steadfast love, lovingkindness and mercy depending on context. This demonstrates the intricacy of Biblical Hebrew.
Theologians also debate the nature of hesed. Some emphasize the element of covenant obligation, while others focus on its generosity beyond duty. Despite differences, most agree hesed combines loyalty, love and mercy within relationships.
In the New Testament, the Greek word agape is sometimes seen as a parallel concept to hesed. Agape denotes unconditional, self-sacrificial love. Both terms illustrate key divine attributes.
Ultimately, the nuances of ‘hesed’ showcase the complexity inherent in Scriptural language. Ongoing study is needed to fully unpack its meanings within Biblical texts.
Appearances of ‘Hesed’ in the Old Testament
Key Passages Highlighting God’s Hesed
The Hebrew word “hesed” appears around 250 times in the Old Testament, conveying meanings like “lovingkindness,” “mercy,” “grace,” and “steadfast love.” Several prominent passages demonstrate how the Old Testament writers understood God’s enduring hesed for His people.
In Exodus 34:6-7, when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God describes Himself as “abounding in hesed and faithfulness.” This rich description of God’s loving compassion influenced later biblical authors.
The Lord’s hesed for His people shines through saving them from enemies during the period of the Judges (1 Samuel 7:15). His hesed and compassion also stand out in prophecies of future restoration for exiled Israel (Isaiah 54:8, Jeremiah 31:3).
The Psalms frequently praise the Lord’s eternal hesed. Psalm 136 repeats the refrain “His hesed endures forever” as it recounts God’s acts in creating the world and redeeming Israel from captivity. Two psalms covet a deeper experience of God’s hesed (Psalm 25:6, 63:3), while other psalms proclaim God’s consistent hesed as a source of refuge (Psalm 57:1).
For the psalm writers, God’s faithful hesed undergirded their relationship with Him.
Frequency Analysis by Old Testament Book
The distribution of “hesed” across Old Testament books indicates key themes. Over a third of its appearances describe God’s nature. For instance:
- Psalms (around 80) consistently praise God’s steadfast hesed
- The Major Prophets (over 40) proclaim God’s persistent grace and love despite Israel’s lapses
- The Torah (around 30) establishes God’s merciful hesed as foundational to His covenant with Israel
The table below shows how frequently “hesed” appears both referring to God’s love for His people and human love/kindness in relationships:
|Referring to God’s Hesed
|Referring to Human Hesed
As seen above, “hesed” overwhelmingly conveys God’s gracious and faithful covenant love. It occurs less frequently referring to compassionate human love. But human expressions of hesed are still valued in the Old Testament (Ruth 1:8, Daniel 1:9).
Some scholars see references to God’s hesed peaking during the exilic and post-exilic period. This suggests that God’s certain love became a deep source of hope when Israel’s future seemed uncertain. It represented the bedrock assurance that God would remain in steadfast covenant relationship with them.
‘Hesed’ Usage in the New Testament
The Hebrew word “hesed” which conveys the ideas of “lovingkindness,” “mercy,” “loyalty,” and “faithfulness,” does not actually appear in the New Testament. This is because the New Testament was written in Koine Greek rather than Hebrew.
However, the concepts behind hesed do show up in the New Testament, especially when describing God’s relationship with humanity. For example:
There are several verses that highlight God’s kindness, mercy, and grace towards people. A good example is Ephesians 2:4-7 (NRSV):
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Here God’s mercy and love are on full display. The Greek word for “love” here is agape which conveys self-sacrificial, unconditional love. And God’s kindness and grace towards humanity made salvation possible.
There are also verses that highlight God’s complete faithfulness towards His people. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says:
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
The Greek word for “faithful” is pistos, meaning trustworthy and reliable. Despite hardships, believers can depend on God to strengthen and guide them.
So while “hesed” itself is not used, the covenant loyalty and love it represents are displayed by God throughout the New Testament record.
Theological Significance of God’s Hesed
Steadfastness Amidst Israel’s Unfaithfulness
The Hebrew word hesed appears around 245 times in the Old Testament, with over half of those uses describing God’s steadfast love and mercy towards His people Israel. Though Israel was often unfaithful in their covenant relationship with God, breaking His commands and worshipping other gods, God remained faithful to His promises and showed hesed to them time and again (Exodus 34:6-7).
His lovingkindness endured forever, even in the midst of their disobedience.
For example, after Israel worshipped the golden calf at Mount Sinai, God showed hesed by renewing His covenant and dwelling among them in the tabernacle (Exodus 33:12-23). Though they grumbled and rebelled in the wilderness, God continued to provide manna, water, and protection out of His abounding love and compassion (Nehemiah 9:17-21).
His hesed far surpassed Israel’s faithlessness. He was slow to anger and abounding in hesed (Psalm 103:8).
Basis for Appeals to God’s Mercy
When pleading for God’s help and forgiveness, the psalmists frequently appealed to God’s hesed as a basis for their request. They asked God to show lovingkindness because of His great mercy, not because they deserved it.
For example, in Psalm 51 David appeals to God’s hesed and compassion after his sin with Bathsheba. He pleads for forgiveness and restoration because of God’s great, unfailing love. Though David was unfaithful, God remained abundantly loving and merciful.
Throughout Israel’s apostasy and exile, the prophets proclaimed that God still cherished His people and would show hesed to them once again (Isaiah 54:8, Jeremiah 31:3). His love was rooted in His covenant promises, not Israel’s worthiness.
His compassions never failed; they were new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). His hesed gave hope that though discipline was warranted, restoration would come because of His great mercy and love.
In this study, we have seen that the word ‘hesed’ powerfully conveys the merciful, gracious, steadfast character of God throughout Scripture. While used over 248 times in the Old Testament to describe God’s relationship with His covenant people, it also grounds the New Testament appeal and hope in the faithfulness of Christ.
As we reflect on the biblical theme of hesed, may our lives be transformed to reflect God’s kindness and mercy towards us.