WHO is God? Is He Wrathful and Scary in the Old Testament, but Merciful and Loving in the New? Why is the Hebrew Word ‘Chesed’ Probably the Greatest One-Word Description of the Nature and Character of God? #84

Happy Monday, friends! Today begins day #5 of shelter in place for us in central California. Yesterday, when my son and I went for a walk in our neighborhood – which is in the city of Salinas, California – we happened upon a gaggle of turkeys atop our neighbor’s house. It would seem the animals are retaking their former territory with less and less humans on the street. I, for one, welcome our new turkey overlords, as long as they can clear up this coronavirus thing…you can count on me to vote straight turkey in the November elections. Now on to more serious things – today’s Bible readings include Exodus 34, Proverbs 10, John 13 and Ephesians 3. Our focus passage is from Exodus 34, which has long been one of my favorite passages in the Old Testament. Some people who have not actually read the Bible have the idea that the ‘God of the Old Testament’ is harsh and judgmental and terrifying, but the ‘God of the New Testament’ is merciful and kind. Well, the fact is – the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are quite the SAME, and He doesn’t change. He is both kind/merciful and Holy/a consuming fire.

I heard a great Tim Keller sermon today on this dynamic that talked about how Jesus was a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek, according to Hebrews. For a Jewish person, this would have been a most astonishing statement. For them the priests were the ministers of health and mercy in their society -the social workers, the medics, the nurses, and the ministers all in one, really. This is why Jesus commanded the cleansed and healed lepers to go show themselves to the priests in Luke 17. Those lepers were healed, but the priests, in their compassion/social work function, would need to have a record of them being cleansed. They were the compassionate arm of the governmental leadership of the people of God. The kings, on the other hand, were far more focused on justice. If you did wrong, it was the king and his administration’s job to punish evil and protect the citizens. This can be pretty clearly seen in Romans 13, where Paul describes the role of the King and the high judicial authorities:

 So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.

Romans 13:2-4

The king brings justice and carries the sword, but the priest is a minister of mercy, compassion and kindness – two wildly different offices. The thing about Melchizedek, however, is that he alone in the Old Testament was a priest AND a king. In fact, as we’ve discussed before, I consider Melchizedek to be a Christophany – an Old Testament appearance of Christ. Jesus, like Melchizedek, was and is a KING and a PRIEST. He is a FOREVER PRIEST, and He is the KING OF ALL KINGS – He combines the justice/judgment/holiness/authority of the King with the compassion/mercy/tenderness of the priest. And, as you might expect, Jesus is like His Father who was also abounding in mercy AND a just/Holy and almighty Judge. Let’s read Exodus 34 and see how God describes HIMSELF:

The Lord came down in a cloud, stood with him there, and proclaimed His name Yahweh. Then the Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed:Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But He will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.

Exodus 34:5-7

Such an interesting passage! In particular, I am stirred by the fact that God says He is rich in “faithful love,” and that He maintains that “faithful love,” to a thousand generations. Back in my seminary days, I took a Hebrew exegesis class, and one of our assignments was to write a long paper on ONE word. I thought it was going to be one of the toughest and most boring assignments I’ve ever had. First, because Hebrew was a very hard language to learn. Entirely different characters, no punctuation, no vowels per se, and the script reads right to left, rather than left to right. Nevertheless, this assignment has become one of my favorite and most fruitful assignments I’ve ever had. Almost no other assignment in seminary quite revealed the character of God to me like studying this ONE Hebrew word: סֶד cheçed, kheh’-sed. We don’t really have an English equivalent for that word, but faithful love or covenant love is an approximation. I’d like to share a little bit about that word, if you’ll let me. Not as an academic study, but to illuminate for us the character of God a little better:

The Hebrew word chesed, signified by the Hebrew chet, seghol vowel, samek, seghol vowel then dalet, is a significant Old Testament word that has generated quite a bit of theological controversy in recent scholarship. Often translated with benevolent words like “mercy”, “love” or the King James Version’s “lovingkindness” none of those words capture the full meaning of the Hebrew, but they do come close. Many scholars contend that chesed is best understood in the context of covenantal relationship; while others counter that it is not fully dependent on contractual obligations. This project will examine chesed in a variety of Old Testament passages, defining its range of meaning from context while seeking to determine whether the covenantal view of chesed is fully accurate. Further, as chesed is such a common word in the Old Testament, the focus here will be on the positive aspect of the word and will further zoom in on the aspect of chesed as expressed by God towards man.

Chesed is used frequently in the Old Testament, appearing roughly 250 times (246 according to TLOT[1] and 245 according to NIDOTTE[2]), and is distributed widely as well, appearing more than once in at least 25 Old Testament books, ranging from the earliest (Genesis and Job) to the latest, (Esther and Malachi.)[3] By far, the book of Psalms contains the most instances of chesed, with at least 125, accounting for over half of the word’s usage in the Old Testament. Chesed can refer to inter-human relationships but roughly 75 percent of the time when it appears in the Old Testament, it is referring to God’s relationship and dealings with man.[4]

Chesed in Old Testament Context

            Prior to the twentieth century, chesed was almost always translated using words such as mercy, faithfulness, love and kindness.[5] Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, first published in 1847, uses the words “zeal”, “love”, “desire”, “mercy” and “benevolence”.[6] Brown Driver Briggs, appearing in 1906, similarly uses the words “kindness” and “goodness” specifying “kindness, especially as extended to the lowly, needy and miserable”[7]

The traditional understanding of chesed was strongly challenged in 1927 with the release of a very influential doctoral dissertation published in Germany by Nelson Glueck. This work contained a detailed argument that chesed should be understood in light of covenant relationship, and was therefore more a function of loyalty and fidelity than simply mercy and kindness. R. Laird Harris summarizes Glueck’s view, “He built on the growing idea that Israel was bound to its deity by covenants like the Hittite and other treaties. He held that God is pictured as dealing basically in this way with Israel. The Ten Commandments were stipulations of the covenant, Israel’s victories were rewards of covenant keeping, her apostasy was covenant violation and God’s chesed was not basically mercy, but loyalty to His contractual obligations.”[8] Further elucidation of Glueck’s view is found in the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, “[according to Glueck] chesed does not refer to a spontaneous, ultimately unmotivated kindness, but to a mode of behavior that arises from a relationship, defined by rights and obligations.”[9] This view has been widely accepted among certain scholars, and has greatly influenced modern understanding of the meaning of chesed, and as such, the nature of God’s relationship with the Hebrew people. A full examination of the context and uses of chesed in the Old Testament, however, seems to quite clearly refute Glueck’s position.

   Glueck’s contention must be dealt with in any discussion of the definition of chesed, both because of its widespread scholarly acceptance, and because there are a few Old Testament passages that seem to validate his proposal. The stakes of properly defining chesed are quite high – is God kind and loving to only certain people (and even then only because of obligation/covenant,) or is He merciful and kind to all because it is in His nature? It is easy to see how this word understood in a strictly covenantal way can lead to a false dichotomy between the God of the Old Testament (loving out of obligation, and punishing with wrath) and the God of the New Testament (loving and merciful).

            Context in the Hebrew language is of paramount importance in understanding word meanings. Glueck, and other scholars after him have paid careful attention to all of the instances of chesed that appear in passages connected to covenant themes. Note the appearance of the word in covenantal context in 1 Kings 3:6, “Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness (chesed) to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness (chesed) to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.” (NIV, emphasis mine) First note that the NIV translates both cheseds as kindness. Looking at the KJV, we find that it translates the first chesed as “mercy”, and the second as “kindness”. The literal NASB uses “lovingkindness” in both spots. Second, the word “because” is important here, it indicates to the many advocates of Glueck’s thesis evidence of the covenantal nature of chesed.

            Another chesed passage contains similar covenantal thought, “Continue your love (chesed) to those who know you, your righteousness to the upright in heart. (Psalms 36:10, NIV) Again, many modern scholars see an almost quid pro quo here: God’s chesed is given to those who know Him and his righteousness (tsadoq) to the upright. Surveying other translations, we see that where the NIV translates chesed with love, the KJV uses “lovingkindness”, the Amplified follows the KJV (As does the NKJV and NASB) and the ESV chooses to use two words to express its translation: “steadfast love”.

            Another passage that seems to confirm the Glueck hypothesis is 2 Samuel 22:26, “To the faithful (chacyd – an adjectival form of chesed) you show yourself faithful (chesed), to the blameless you show yourself blameless. (NIV, also closely paralleled in Psalms 18:25) Interestingly, the NIV uses “faithful” here, adding another element of meaning to the word, while the NASB translates “kind” and the KJV uses “merciful”.

            While the passages above and a handful of others seem to confirm the covenantal nature of chesed, it should be noted that there are many instances of chesed in the Old Testament that do not contain even a veiled reference to covenant or agreement. A clear example of this is found in 1 Kings 20:31. In this passage, the Syrian king Benhadad had just seen his army defeated by Israel’s army, and he is facing the prospect of death. The text reads, “His officials said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful. (chesed)  Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.” (NIV) The context here has nothing to do with covenant in any way; it is simply listed as a character trait of the kings of Israel, irrespective of their relationships (particularly in this case, with an enemy). Most major translations, including the KJV, the NASB, and the NKJV use merciful here as well, and this is a strong indication that mercy must be at least a significant primary sense of chesed, the context here makes it very clear.

            Turning again to God’s relationship with humanity, Exodus 34:6 describes an encounter between Moses and God in the midst of the reception of the Ten Commandments. Though the receiving of the commandments are the setting of this passage, it is clear that God’s description of Himself has nothing contextually to do with the setting, “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness (chesed) and truth.” (KJV) The KJV uses “goodness” for chesed here, while the NIV opts for “love” and the NASB uses “lovingkindness” Given that God’s declaration of His love, mercy and long suffering happened directly after a great falling away by the Israelites, it is difficult to see how he is proclaiming His chesed here only in the context of covenant. This declaration of God and His abiding chesed is similarly found in Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8, and as late as Nehemiah 9:7 (among others).

            There is at least one instance, perhaps more (see Jonah 2:8), where chesed substitutes as a name for God. Psalm 144:2 declares, “He is my loving God (chesed) and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.” The NIV here adds “God” to the passage, translating chesed as “loving God”.

            One final contextual view of chesed will be considered. Psalm 51 is known as David’s penitential prayer to God after the murder of Uriah and adultery with Bathsheba. In this Psalm, David cries out for forgiveness and a restoration of His relationship with God, and bases his please on God’s chesed. The NIV renders verse 1, “Have mercy on me O God according to your unfailing love (chesed); according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.” David’s plea is not based on His relationship or covenant with God, nor on God’s promises, but on God’s character – He is chesed. Again here, we see chesed translated in a slightly different way as unfailing love in the NIV and lovingkindness in the KJV and NASB.

            Several things are clear from the above passages. First, chesed is translated a myriad of ways, but always seems to carry with it the idea of kindness, love, mercy and benevolence. Though it is an archaic term, “lovingkindness” is proposed as the best translation, as it best encompasses all of the nuances called for by the contexts listed above, if one were to use two words, perhaps “loving mercy” would be even more appropriate.

            Second, though chesed is often used in covenantal passages, it is quite a stretch to say that the word should be defined in that context only, because it is used in so many other contexts, where it clearly means kindness, love or mercy, but has no connection to anything even remotely covenantal. John Piper, writing when he was a professor at Bethel college in 1979, comes to a similar conclusion. He writes, “Therefore, God’s chesed (and the mercy that flows from it), understood in its most fundamental sense precedes and grounds the covenant rather than vice versa. It is that which moved God in his sovereign freedom to graciously initiate a relationship with Israel.”[10] Yes, God is in covenant with Israel, but His covenant was preceded by His chesed, His chesed does not come about because of the covenant.

            Spiritual application of this truth is two-fold. Primarily, when we study chesed, we see a God who is abounding in grace, love and mercy. His kindness is everlasting, and His mercy is sure.  Secondly, this truth can be used apologetically, particularly with the one who denies the truth of the Bible, because of the false assumption that the God of the Old Testament was only wrathful and different from the God of the New Testament, who is more merciful. Careful analysis of chesed shows that this isn’t true at all.


           Chesed therefore is a most important word to understand if one desires to understand the attributes of God and His relationship with His people. God’s lovingkindness does not spring out of obligation, nor is it only available to a select few, nor is it only open to those who are pure hearted and lovers of God. Lovingkindness is an aspect of God’s being, independent of His relationship with man, but informing every facet of that relationship.

[1]              Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 449

[2]              William A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 211

[3]              Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, 449

[4]              New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. 211

[5]              R. Laird Harris, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 305

[6]              William Geseneius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, trans. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 293-294

[7]              Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 338

[8]              Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 305

[9]              Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, 451

[10]         John Piper, “Prolegomena to Understanding Romans 9:14-15: An Interpretation of Exodus 33:19,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22 (September, 1979): 210-211.

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