A Small Word With A Huge Meaning

word nerdI am an unashamed word nerd. In fact, I probably spend way too much time thinking about words and how best to string them together to convey meaning. It is one of the reasons why I read – it is to see how others create images and understandings with words. I love words.

In fact, I love words so much that I have favorites. I will not bore you with my top ten or top one hundred favorite words but I will share with you one very small word that has a huge meaning and one that just might change your life. It is the Hebrew word hesed.

If you’ve read any part of the Bible – especially the Psalms – you’ve come across the word hesed somewhere around 250 times. The thing about hesed is that it presents a challenge to translate because we don’t have a one-to-one word exchange for hesed in English. So, translators have done their best to try and capture what hesed means in order to convey the full weight of that small word. For instance, if have you read Psalm 136 you’ve read hesed like this – [1] Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. [2] Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. [3] Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever.”

But what on earth does steadfast love mean exactly? In church circles, we’ve heard that phrase associated with God a lot – but have you ever really given it much thought? You see the challenge with the word hesed is that in Hebrew the word conveys to very powerful ideas: love and loyalty/devotion. We just don’t have a word in English that conveys the depth and connection between those two words and so translators have stuck with steadfast love or loyal love to convey the meaning of hesed.

But hesed, for such a small word, has a huge meaning. The psalmist of Psalm 136 must have thought so because he repeated it throughout the entire Psalm. I’ve only put the first three verses here but there are 26 in all. We find steadfast love/loyal love (hesed) as part of a refrain in Psalm 136 – which tells us that it was probably a Psalm that had sort of a response element to it. What I mean is that the worship leader would say something and then the people would respond “for his steadfast love/loyal love (hesed) endures forever.” It is that phrase that runs the entire gamut – the entire 26 verses of Psalm 136 – and it is a word that again was used over 250 times in the Old Testament. If I know anything about the way words work in the Bible, I know if it is used a lot it is an important word that usually has a huge meaning and here the psalmist is saying something about God’s steadfast or loyal love. Let me see if I can unpack it a little bit.

Today is Mother’s Day – and so it is appropriate that we talked about hesed – because when we think about our mom – or at least the idea of mom – at some point we land on the idea of love and loyalty. I’ll bet right now there is some mother opening a card that says something to the effect of “thank you for standing by me no matter what – I love you Mom!” As imperfect as a mother may have been – all of us understand the idea of how steadfast or loyal a mother’s love is – or should be – for her children – no matter what they do – right? In the good times and the not so good times, mom is there – right?

Love and loyalty are mingled together in the Hebrew word hesed and that idea is sprinkled throughout the OT and in Psalm 136 in particular. In fact, in Psalm 136, as one theologian pointed out, we get a very broad picture of God’s hesed for his people. The psalmist calls on people to give God thanks because out of His hesed (love and loyalty) he created all things. He calls on people to give God thanks because out of His hesed, He redeemed them, rescued them, protected them, stood by them in the lowest times – even bad times of their own making – God’s hesed endures forever. And forever – like the late great Prince once said – forever is a mighty long time.

Before I go much further, I want to tell you about one other place in the OT that the word hesed is used. In Exodus 34, Moses, we are told, encounters God. In their exchange, God tells Moses somethings about himself and God used the word hesed to describe himself – and he wanted that passed along so that everyone would know. God’s love for humanity is a hesed sort of love. In Exodus 34:6–8 it says, “The LORD passed before him (Moses) and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed – loyal love) and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love (hesed – loyal love) for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

All of this means, of course, that God’s love for you and for me is a hesed sort of love; it is a love of devotion and loyalty. It isn’t fickle. It doesn’t wane. Of course, the greatest way humanity has ever witnessed the hesed of God is through the cross – through Jesus. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that at any point in time since the Garden of Eden has humanity ever been good enough to merit God’s love. And yet, as Paul wrote in Romans, God demonstrated his love (hesed perhaps?) for us in that while we were still sinners (read enemies of God), Christ died for us.”

Let that sink in for a moment – and add this to it. You are the object of God’s hesed. You are the object of God’s love and loyalty. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, you can give God thanks that His hesed for you endures forever. I’d like to encourage you to take some time – this Mother’s Day – and every day – to be reminded that you are the object of God’s love and loyalty – God’s love and devotion – and that love and devotion doesn’t wane for you – even when you blow it. I’d like to encourage you to start each day and end each day speaking the refrain of Psalm 136 to yourself – and claiming for your family, friends, and yourself – that God’s steadfast love for you and your children – and all those who have put their trust int he Lord – endures forever. 

Hesed is a small word that has a huge meaning that may just change your life.



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