Hesed for Dummies

-Written by Stan-

IMG_0258Recently I had the privilege of attending a lecture by an Old Testament professor (Dr. John Oswalt) on the subject of hesed.You say you don’t know what that word means? Well, neither did most of us in the lecture hall that evening.

Hesed is a Hebrew term used over 240 times in the Old Testament. Interestingly, the word has no known cognates in other Semitic languages. No single English word is able to encompass the richness of its meaning so it has been translated by a wide number of different terms in our Bibles: kindness, gentleness, goodness, steadfast love, mercy, pity, lovingkindness, compassion, etc. Basically, hesed describes the covenant faithfulness, passionate devotion, undying loyalty, and absolute dependability of God. Though the word is related to “love,” it is much stronger and deeper. “Hesed,” Dr. Oswalt explained, “is not something you feel; it is something you do.”

God treated Israel with hesed even when she was unfaithful and committed spiritual adultery with other lovers. As he neared the end of his lecture, Dr. Oswalt explained that because redemption intends to restore the image of God in us, the Gospel promises that we too can be filled with hesed; our characters can be defined by covenant faithfulness and passionate devotion even as God’s is.

As I listened to Dr. Oswalt, I was intellectually stimulated by the thrill of learning that I often experience when I’m sitting in a good Bible study. But when he began to apply the concept of hesed to the marriage covenant between a husband and wife, I began to realize that this academic lecture had suddenly gotten up close and personal.

The place where hesed is best learned is in marriage, Oswalt explained. Though most of our culture believes that love (warm feelings, infatuation) is the foundation of marriage, this only underscores how far we have drifted from God’s original design. For marriage (and the family that comes from it) to be what God intends, the foundation must be hesed: covenant faithfulness. Warm fuzzy feelings may come and go, but loyal devotion provides a foundation for a healthy home that will last forever. Oswalt reminded us how the traditional marriage ceremony gives a beautiful description of hesed.

Will you have this woman to be your wedded wife; to live together in the covenant of
marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health;
and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

I ______ take you _____ to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day
forward; for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and
to cherish, till death do us part. And thereto I pledge you my faithfulness.

For those of you familiar with this blog, you may be wondering what all this talk about hesed has to do with Katy and her stroke?


Thirty-nine years ago Katy and I stood at an altar and said vows. We didn’t fully understand it at the time, but we were pledging hesed to one another. The last seven months have given us both many occasions to learn in deeper ways than we ever imagined what those vows really mean. For me, it feels I’ve been enrolled in a class in Hesed 101. The learning curve has been steep but the blessings are glorious! Keeping hesed sometimes requires hard work and tenacity. At times it borders on unfeeling obedience. But that is not a bad thing… no, not at all.

We practice hesed with one another because God practiced hesed with us first! Frankly, it just doesn’t get better than this!

Because your hesed is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63:3-4).

The best part of hesed is this: when we reach the end of our ability, God stands ready to fill us with streams of living hesed that flow directly from his heart into ours.