Steadfast love

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I have a favourite word in the Bible. It is also the most incredible word in the Old Testament. It is variously translated into English by the words “love”, “unfailing love”, “loving kindness” (NIV), “steadfast love” (RSV), “goodness”, “mercy”, “merciful kindness” or “faithfulness” (KJV). It is the Hebrew word chesed or hesed (the “c” is almost silent and produces a guttural sound). The RSV and NRSV tend to be the most consistent by translating chesed always into “steadfast love”.

The entire confessional background of the Hebrew faith that makes up the cathedral of the Old Testament rests on three grand pillars: grace (chesed), covenant (berit) and teachings (torah).

These three words are key in understanding the Jewish faith. Tragically, the current NSW Higher School Certificate religious studies course component on the Jewish religion leaves out the most important one and mentions only the last two.

Chesed is a powerful word! Chesed is an act that has no cause! The ultimate act of chesed is Creation: “out of nothing”. No-one merits existence; we only exist by the gift of God. Our relationship to God depends on chesed because He owes us nothing. God does not save us because of what we do, but because of who He is! Loving kindness (RSV) is an act that has no cause. It is a character trait of God because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Look at the following passage from the RSV (my preferred translation because of its literal transcription from the original languages of the Bible). This passage from Psalm 89 is talking about the promise of the Davidic Covenant, which was just a reiteration of the various covenants that went before it, all the way back to Eden.

28 My steadfast love I will keep for him for ever,
    and my covenant will stand firm for him.
29 I will establish his line for ever
    and his throne as the days of the heavens.
30 If his children forsake my law
    and do not walk according to my ordinances,
31 if they violate my statutes
    and do not keep my commandments,
32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod
    and their iniquity with scourges;
33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
    or be false to my faithfulness.
34 I will not violate my covenant,
    or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
    I will not lie to David.
36 His line shall endure for ever,
    his throne as long as the sun before me.
37 Like the moon it shall be established for ever;
    it shall stand firm while the skies endure.” Selah

Notice the word selah at the end of verse 37. That is a musical term that means “pause and think about what you are singing”. All three of the pillars are in these verses, but the most staggering thing is Yahweh’s affirmation to stand by His word no matter where the nation of Israel goes or how far they wander into disobedience. Verse 34 is amazing! God changes not (Malachi 3:6); He is the same yesterday today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Of course verse 36 is referring to the ultimate seed of David. We also know what happened to the seed of Abraham in the New Testament. These words, and the ones I am going to follow with, all belong to us. Our hope rests on the promise of God and that is the heart of Psalm 89.

God is faithful; His will must ultimately triumph, but whether or not we triumph depends upon how we relate ourselves to that will. Ask yourself, “Is the will of God my sovereign law?”

Notice the essence of Psalm 117, the Jewish Doxology, comprising 17 Hebrew words arranged in two parallel couplets. This psalm was sung as part of the six psalms that Jesus sung at The Last Supper. Here again chesed (“steadfast love”, RSV) is prominent, along with the word faithfulness (RSV) or truth (KJV). This doxology of praise gives us Yahweh’s chief attributes in His dealings with humanity and the chief reason for our praise.

Chesed is love that stoops, love that departs from the strict lines of descent and retribution. Chesed is love that is kind when justice might make it otherwise. Chesed is love that condescends to that which is far beneath. This steadfast or unfailing love is the Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament word “grace” (Greek: charis) and shows us that the plan of salvation has been the same throughout history. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). [pullquote]

Faithfulness (RSV) or truth (KJV) blends with steadfast love (chesed) to become the attribute of God’s fidelity to every obligation under which He has come—faithfulness to promise. This is His character. Faithfulness will last as long as God Himself does!

Why would we not reverence such a God! Why would we not bow down and worship Him who “made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11). Wait a minute— there it is! Chesed in Exodus 20:6.

How significant that Psalm 85:10 says, “Steadfast love (chesed) and faithfulness have met together” and are inseparably blended—they have “kissed each other”. Paul said that God, “can be just and yet the justifier of them who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, KJV). A marriage of eternal consequence!

God displays chesed in making promises and exhibits truth or faithfulness (KJV/RSV) in fulfilling them. Both meet in the covenant, at the incarnation and on the cross. Both meet in the conversion of sinners and both will be perfected when the saints reach heaven.

Chesed without faithfulness would be powerless, just like truth without grace would be legalism. But together they tell us that God can justify the sinner because His justice has been satisfied by His grace.

Remember these words that Yahweh spoke to Moses from the cloud on the mount, after the first set of tables of stone had been smashed (there’s a message there):

6 The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin . . .” (Exodus 34:6,7, RSV).

How can I finish?—there is so much more. My suggestion to you: find out which word your preferred translation uses in the examples I have given for chesed, and then as you are reading the Bible, your spirit will leap when you see the word and say “that is the Hebrew word chesed”. It is a rich and amazing word! It is my favourite word in the Old Testament!

Psalm 86 (RSV)

For thou, O Lord, art good and forgiving,
    abounding in steadfast love to all who call on thee.
13 For great is thy steadfast love toward me;
    thou hast delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
15 But thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Ross Chadwick is a volunteer pastor and middle school teacher at Dungog, NSW.

1. Psalm 136 uses chesed in every one of its 26 verses.1
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