Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
We use words to describe and communicate experiences of life. These words are often inadequate to capture the whole of the experience. And when we try to translate them from one language to another, things get even more complicated.
One such word is the Hebrew word chesed. The 1535 Coverdale Bible translated it as ‘loving-kindness’. The NIV uses several English words or phrases, depending on the context, including love, unfailing love, great love, kindness, unfailing kindness, mercy, faithfulness and devotion. Chesed appears almost 250 times in the Old Testament. About three quarters of these occurrences refer to God’s chesed for humanity, while most of the remainder refer our chesed for one another.
Chesed is most importantly a relational term. It is a pattern of interaction that takes places within established relationships. God’s love is made available to the whole of humanity – it is universal and all-embracing. But God’s chesed is a particular form of love that is exercised within established and intimate relationships between God and us. In other words, once we enter into a committed relationship with God, we experience an additional quality to God’s love, which is chesed.
Chesed may be best understood as a covenant love. Abraham entered into a covenant relationship with God in Genesis 17. At one level, the covenant is a contractual relationship between God and Abraham (and his descendants). But it is much deeper and whole-hearted than just a contract. It is a deep commitment of each to the other, much more like a marriage contract – an enduring and intimate investment in one another. With this mutual commitment comes chesed – loving-kindness, unfailing love. Chesed is the relational term that sums up the covenant.
God speaks about this in Isaiah 54:10, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my chesed (unfailing love) for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” And again a few verses later, God’s covenant and God’s chesed are paired, “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my chesed (faithful love) promised to David” (Isaiah 55:3b).
Chesed is not merely a warm feeling of love towards a person with whom you have a committed relationship. Rather, it is a demonstration of that commitment in acts of kindness or mercy. It is love in action, based on commitment or loyalty. Neither is chesed simply random acts of kindness to strangers – the enduring and close relationship is central. We get some sense of this in Isaiah 63:7, “I will tell of the chesed (kindnesses) of the LORD, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the LORD has done for us—yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many chesed (kindnesses).” Compassion and kindness here have different meanings. Compassion is more about mercy and pity, with a significant emotional component, while kindnesses refer to acts of kindness rooted in God’s relationship with God’s people.
Because God is eternal and because God’s covenant is permanent, God’s chesed endures and persists for eternity. In Jeremiah 33:3, God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with chesed (loving-kindness).” And in Psalm 89:28, God says, “I will maintain my chesed (love) to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail.” Because of this assurance, the Old Testament writers repeatedly attest to God’s everlasting faithfulness: “But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’S chesed (love) is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children” (Psalm 103:17); “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your chesed (love), O LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands” (Psalm 138:8); “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his chesed (love) endures forever” (1 Chronicles 16:34).
This last phrase, “His chesed (love) endures forever”, appears numerous times in the Old Testament. It becomes a refrain in Psalm 118, which opens and closes with the whole phrase, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his chesed (love) endures forever”, and which repeats the refrain in verses 2, 3 and 4. Psalm 136 also opens with the whole phrase, and has the refrain in each of the Psalm’s 26 verses. Psalm 136 is a kind of Jewish Creed, in which all of God’s great acts to that time are recited, including God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt and God’s giving to them the land of Israel. “His chesed (love) endures forever!”
God’s chesed is experienced particularly when we are in the midst of adversity. Psalm 94:18 says, “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your chesed (love), O LORD, supported me.” And Psalm 32:10 says, “Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’S chesed (unfailing love) surrounds the man who trusts in him.” The sense here is that God’s chesed is grasped at while we are still in the adversity. Chesed does not necessarily remove the adversity or even the distress and anxiety that adversity evokes. Within each situation, we have to seek out again God’s chesed and rediscover what it means to be loved while we struggle with life. Chesed becomes a lifeline or an anchor onto which we hold for dear life. While we struggle someone may reassure us that God loves us, but actually that is something we have to find for ourselves.
God’s chesed is what we particularly cling to when our life is in danger. In Genesis 19, when the angels of the Lord rescue Lot and his family from Sodom, Lot says, “Your servant has found favour in your eyes, and you have shown great chesed (kindness) to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die.” In the midst of this threat on his life, Lot experiences the angels’ deliverance as an act of chesed. In Psalm 119, especially, life and love are intimately tied up together: “Preserve my life according to your chesed (love), and I will obey the statutes of your mouth… Hear my voice in accordance with your chesed (love); preserve my life, O LORD, according to your laws… See how I love your precepts; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your chesed (love)” (119:88, 149 & 159).
God’s chesed gives us courage to approach God, even when we have messed up. Our sin – the myriad ways we fall short of God’s ideal for us – hinders our relationship with God. But our knowledge of God’s chesed is the mandate for us, nevertheless, to come close to God, to ask for mercy and forgiveness. Old Testament writers have a unique ability to remind God of God’s own values, and then to call on God to live according to these! It’s what we’d call chutzpah (Yiddish for audacity)! For example, Psalm 51 opens with these words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your chesed (unfailing love); according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” David, the author of this psalm, calls on God’s chesed and compassion to access God’s mercy and forgiveness. Psalm 6:4 similarly calls on chesed to access God’s deliverance: “Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your chesed (unfailing love).”
Perhaps one of the more audacious examples is in Numbers 14:17-19, where Moses intercedes with God who is fed up with the grumbling of the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. He quotes back to God, God’s own words! And then, standing firm on God’s promised chesed asks for God’s forgiveness of the people. “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in chesed (love) and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great chesed (love), forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.” Reminded of his own words, God says, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.” We, like Moses, can have confidence to rest in God’s chesed, because God is committed to us.
God’s chesed is abundant. It is not meted out stingily. Psalm 33:5 affirms, “The earth is full of his chesed (unfailing love)” and Psalm 119:64 echoes, “The earth is filled with your chesed (love), O LORD.” The Psalms describe God’s love as reaching to the heavens – to the moon and back! “For great is your chesed (love), higher than the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies” (Psalm 108:4). And God’s chesed reaches thousands of people (probably meaning everybody), “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of chesed (love) to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
God’s lovingkindness – God’s chesed – is part of the relational package for all those who have entered into a covenant relationship with God. We can rely on God to be true to God’s character and promise, that God will keep his covenant of love with us. We can rest, peacefully, on God’s promise and God’s consistency. What God has said, God will do. It is one of the anchors of our life, not dependent on our feelings of relational security or self-worth. Not even dependent on the purity of our life. It is dependent on God’s consistent orientation towards us, an orientation of chesed.
But what if you are not in a covenant or committed relationship with God? What if you have not yet surrendered your life to Christ? While chesed is reserved for those in a covenant relationship, God still loves you and deeply wants to have a covenant relationship with you. This is God’s deep desire for each one of us – to have this sort of deep, intimate, loving relationship with you. All it requires from you is a decision to relinquish yourself to God – to surrender. Recognise your brokenness and the hollowness in yourself without God. Acknowledge your desire for and need for God. Thank God for being open to receive you into relationship. Thank God in particular for his Son Jesus Christ who has cancelled our sin and opened up the path to a wholehearted relationship with God. And commit yourself to God’s chesed. Welcome to God’s family! And to a lifelong experience of God’s chesed.
Meditation for the Day
Reflect on the meaning of chesed – God’s attitude of lovingkindness towards those with whom God has a covenant relationship. How would you relationship with God be different if you fully accepted God’s chesed?
Prayer for the Day
Loving God, remember your covenant of love to me. Let me never turn away from you. Let me never forget all your lovingkindnesses to me in the past. Let me always rest secure in your chesed.
 VanGemeren, W. (Ed.). (1997). New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. This is the primary source of information that informs today’s chapter. I have also made some use of the Brown, C. (Ed.). (1986). New international dictionary of New Testament theology and exegesis. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster.
 In all the quotations from the NIV Bible today, I am placing the NIV translation of chesed in brackets, so that you can see both the original use of chesed by the biblical writers and the varied translations of chesed into English by the NIV translators.