Monday, August 3, 2015


"Chesed" is often translated in the NASB as "lovingkindness."  It is a perplexing Hebrew word that has been the subject of many theses, papers, and even books.  It has been translated "mercy" "kindness" "steadfast love," to name a few.  German scholar N. Glueck said chesed means, "conduct in accord with a mutual relationship of rights and duties, corresponding to a mutually obligatory relationship... principally . . ."  This view arose mainly from studies of Canaanite documents from the Syrian city-state of Ugarit, and Glueck’s work, I feel has overly influenced biblical scholarship.  All human languages are adaptable to the demands of the various cultures of which they give expression and, indeed, help mold. No aspect of human life puts greater demand on language than religious expression, communicating ones relationship to God and God to the individual or group.  To transfer uncritically the use of a word in ancient Canaanite myths to the Hebrew culture ignores the differences both in cultural setting and religious expression.  God’s revelation to the Hebrew people and particularly to the Israelite nation required special uses of Semitic language, just as New Testament revelation put new demands on the Greek language.
There are certainly passages that lend themselves to the use of chesed for a covenant relationship, particularly God’s covenant relationship with Israel.  (See Isaiah 63:7)  Nevertheless, a study of all the O.T. references in context will make it clear that limiting the definition of chesed to Gleuck’s concept will not suit all the usages. 
Psalm 25:6 offers us insight into the meaning of chesed since the word is used in the plural. 
Remember, O LORD, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses, For they have been from of old. (NASB)
If its meaning were “loyalty to a covenant,” as many maintain, it would be difficult to translate in this verse.  The ESV dodges the issue in favor of the singular “steadfast love,” the translators’ preferred rendering.  The KJV and the NKJV both use “lovingkindnesses”.  In the following verse (v. 7) the context seems to favor the KJV and NKJV translation of chesed as “mercy,” yet the NASB stays with “lovingkindness,” that version’s consistent choice.[1]
This is a rich word that has a broad range of interlocking or interrelated meanings.  Anyone who is fluent in more than one language has experienced the difficulty of translating certain concepts from one language to another, especially using only one word.  It is often impossible.  Some languages express complex ideas in one word that require more than one word, perhaps a whole phrase, to express in another language.  This is especially true in varying contexts.  Old Testament Hebrew scholars have favored the notion that chesed involves a covenant relationship.  I contend that the varied contexts in which the word occurs belie that notion.  The word does imply a relationship of some kind, but not necessarily a covenant relationship.
In Psalm 36:5, 7, for instance, chesed is clearly not limited to God’s covenant with Israel; it extends to the whole of creation and all people.  Psalm 86 uses chesed three times.  It is translated  “lovingkindness” in the NASB, “mercy” in the KJV and NKJV, and “steadfast love” in the ESV.  Verse 15 gives us insight into the breath of the word by linking it to related words:
But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth. (NKJV)
Comparing “mercy” in the context of the underlined words gives us the flavor of the word. To show chesed is to show the utmost benevolence, a word which might come closest to capturing the essence of chesed.  Another possible translation would be “goodness,” the quality of moral excellence in every aspect. 
Luke 1:78 provides more insight into the meaning of chesed.  In Zacharias’ Benedictus, he says, “Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us . . .”  The word for “mercy” is the Greek word eleos, which means “compassion, pity, mercy.”  According to G. Abbott-Smith, eleos is used in the Septuagint “chiefly” for chesed. (Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament) Luke’s use of eleos here supports the LXX translators’ choice in the Old Testament, and the notion of “mercy” fits the contexts of many Old Testament passages where chesed occurs.
The words found in context with chesed lead me to this definition:  "God's consistency in always acting toward people and his creation in accordance with His character and His standards of interpersonal relationships."  Thus, God's chesed assures us that we can depend on Him in all circumstances.  It also affirms the immutability of God and the goodness of God.

[1] I have found that comparing the NIV translation in this study is nearly meaningless.  Since the NIV follows the “dynamic equivalent” approach to translation, it takes great liberties with the original text making comparison on any given word nearly impossible or meaningless.