Many Christians with a few Bible Studies under their belt know that agape is the Greek word for “love” usually “sacrificial love”. Many of us also know that the Greek word philea is also translated as “love” which we usually distinguish as “brotherly love”. (There’s an easy-to-read article on the topic here.)
In English our word “love” is so deep and complex that it can refer to anything from the taste of a biscuit, to our favorite song, to our great aunt Mildred, and to the act of sex. One word, so many meanings. Often the context provides the correct meaning but at other times we rely on adjectives or detailed clarification to ensure we communicate the intended meaning.
Biblical Hebrew has a wonderfully rich word that we should all know: hesed (sometimes chesed) that God uses to describe himself in Exodus 34:6. In many instances it is translated simply as “love” or “mercy”, while older translations often use the word “lovingkindness”. When the Bible was first translated into English there was no equivalent word to hesed, so in the early 1500’s Coverdale invented the compound word “loving-kindness” in an attempt to capture the depth of hesed. It really had no definition except the obvious unity of love and kindness.
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek sometime before the birth of Christ, those translators had a similar problem. They chose to translate hesed as “mercy” and “compassion”. I don’t think they ever went for the compound “merciful-compassion”!
Other words that modern English translations use include:
- Steadfast love,
- Unfailing love,
- Goodness, and
Essentially, hesed refers to a tender and loyal love. And the wonderful news is that God abounds with hesed.
It frustrates me to no end when I hear people talk about “the Old Testament God” as though he’s different from the New Testament God. It frustrates me on many levels. While I understand that in the OT there are many times when God’s judgment seems quick and harsh, Godly Israelites always regarded Him as loving. The frequency of hesed throughout the Hebrew Bible demonstrates the prominence of God’s love throughout time. God’s character is unchanging: faithful.
In Psalm 85 the psalmist pleads with God to reveal his hesed. “Show us your unfailing love (hesed), Lord, and grant us your salvation.” The psalmist goes on (v10ff) to describe a land filled with the glory (character) of God, “hesed and faithfulness meet together.” God’s presence among his people is characterised by “faithful love” or as some translations would say, “true love”.
One of the major difficulties we face as we read the Bible is that we don’t know what words are used in the original language. We’ll never know all the times hesed is used in the Bible because it’s translated so many different ways. We read the word “compassion”, but have no idea if the Hebrew behind it is hesed or a different Hebrew word. If I had my own Bible translation, I would leave some words, such as hesed and agape untranslated. I would also find a way to distinguish singular and plural “yous”, even if that meant using the Aussie term “yez” or the Southern US colloquialism, “y’all”.
I strongly believe that if we had a firm understanding of hesed our view of God and his actions in the OT would vary considerable from that expressed in most churches. We really need to pay attention to how God describes himself, “abounding in hesed (love) and faithfulness”.
- Hesed carries with it a sense of kindness, gentleness, affection. How important is this in your relationship with God?
- Do you struggle to see God as consistent between the Old & New Testaments?
- Have you found the knowledge of other Greek or Hebrew words to be useful in your understanding of God? If so, which ones?