A Climb Free post – a deeper look at truths that can change our view of our God, ourselves, and the way in which we can live effectively in this world. (This is a continuation of the exploration of our God’s covenant love for us.)
The terms used for the love of our God more than any other in the Old Testament (OT) are variations of the Hebrew root word, “hesed.” These terms are used more than 250 times in the OT, giving us a rich understanding of the complexity and depth of this love. In many English translations, the term is rendered steadfast love, lovingkindness, or love and mercy.
Hesed is significantly different from other, more general terms for love, such as the term used for the love of God in Hosea 11:1-4: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” While this passage gives a rich picture of how our God loves Israel, the actual term for love used here, “aheb,” is simple and straightforward. The first use of this word in 11:1 is simply “loved,” and the second in 11:4 the more tender “ahabah,” meaning “with love” or “lovingly.”
In contrast to that term, “hesed” is a rather complex term – no one word can adequately translate this for us. To capture the full meaning of this term requires a sentence. This “hesed” love is the always gracious, always kind, always merciful, always pursuing, unfailing or relentless love of our God. This is our God’s covenant love, not based upon anything we have done or can do to earn it or qualify for it. This love comes because of the commitment of our God with Himself to love us in this way. This perfect love flows out of His perfect character.
W.E. Vine speaks of three aspects to this word, “hesed,” which are always present and which always interact: ‘strength,’ ‘steadfastness,’ and ‘love.’ Attempting to explain this covenant love without all three aspects loses the richness and depth of it. ‘Love’ by itself can be sentimentalized, as it is in our western cultures, or universalized or generalized when considered apart from the covenant aspects of strength and steadfastness. Yet without love, the ‘strength’ or ‘steadfastness’ suggest only the covenant obligation to be deferential or charitable. These three aspects must all be present and interacting in our understanding of this term.
Brennan Manning, in describing this covenant love of God for us, said it this way: “If you took the love of all the best mothers and fathers who ever lived (think about that for a moment) — all the goodness, kindness, patience, fidelity, wisdom, tenderness, strength and love — and united all those virtues in one person, that person would only be a faint shadow of the love and mercy in the heart of God for you and me.”
This “hesed” – David’s favorite expression for the love of his God – love is how our God expresses Himself the people He created. Here is what the fullness of that term looks like in greater detail.
The covenant love or our God is always full of grace. Grace is often defined as unearned or unmerited favor from our God toward us. The covenant love of our God for us is always characterized by grace. It is this gracious love that is the basis for His reaching out to us to bring us back to Himself. As it is written in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that (referring to the faith) not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This gracious love even goes as far as to supply the faith we need to access the grace.
This covenant love graciously supplies all we need for life and godliness out of the abundance of His fullness. As John 1:16 says, “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” In His always-gracious and abundant love, our God supplies everything we need to live in our weak and imperfect state, so we can live not in our own limited strength but in a state of grace and power by means of His Spirit who indwells us. Paul speaks to this in 2 Corinthians 12:9 “And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
The covenant love of our God is always full of mercy. Mercy has been described as the compassionate treatment of those under one’s power, out of a disposition to be kind and forgiving. Although humans often show mercy toward those with whom they already have a relationship, being unmerciful is more common to humans. Not so with our God, for whom mercy is an intrinsic character quality. Our God’s mercy, unlike human mercy, cannot be exhausted. It drives His interactions with humans individually and corporately, and is a foundation for His redeeming work on our behalf.
Like His grace, the mercy of God is not earned, nor is it given only to those who are His friends. Rather, it is freely given to all, including those in open rebellion, who are already dead in their sins. As stated in Ephesians 2:4, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, 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….” It has been said that grace is what our God gives us when we don’t deserve, and mercy is when our God doesn’t give us what we do deserve. Charles Haddon Spurgeon explains the scope of our God’s mercy this way: “God’s mercy is so great that you may sooner drain the sea of its water, or deprive the sun of its light, or make space too narrow, than to diminish the great mercy of God.”
The next “Climb Free” post will continue to explore this “hesed” love and its implications for us.