Many biblical words such as mercy, compassion, love, grace, and faithfulness relate to the Hebrew word hesed (חֶסֶד), but none of these completely summarize the concept. Hesed is not merely an emotion or feeling but involves action on behalf of someone who is in need. Hesed describes a sense of love and loyalty that inspires merciful and compassionate behavior toward another person.
Hesed, found some 250 times in the Old Testament, expresses an essential part of God’s character. When God appeared to Moses to give the Law a second time, He described Himself as “abounding in” or “filled with” hesed, which is translated “love and faithfulness,” “unfailing love,” “faithful love,” “steadfast love,” and “loyal love,” depending on the Bible version (Exodus 34:6–7). The core idea of this term communicates loyalty or faithfulness within a relationship. Thus, hesed is closely related to God’s covenant with His people, Israel. As it relates to the concept of love, hesed expresses God’s faithfulness to His people.
In Exodus 20:6, God says that He lavishes His hesed “for a thousand generations” on those who love Him and obey His commands. This trustworthy, ever-enduring, loyal aspect of God’s covenantal love resonates throughout the Old Testament (Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4; Jeremiah 32:18)
In the Bible, hesed often describes the mercy and compassion of God. When Moses interceded for the people, he appealed to God’s hesed: “‘The LORD is slow to anger and filled with unfailing love [hesed], forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion. . . . In keeping with your magnificent, unfailing love [hesed], please pardon the sins of this people, just as you have forgiven them ever since they left Egypt” (Numbers 14:18–19, NLT).
While God’s faithful love [hesed] is eternal and limitless, humans, too, can express hesed to one another. As in the case of Jonathan and David (1 Samuel 18:3; 20:8; 2 Samuel 9:1, 3, 7), hesed motivates one person, the superior or more powerful party, to supply a critical need to the lesser or weaker person. Acts of hesed are always performed freely, under no obligation or fear of reprisal. The inspiration behind hesed is born of the relationship between the two parties. Boaz describes Ruth’s kindness toward him and Naomi as hesed (Ruth 3:10).
God’s covenant relationship with His people results in His loyal love and faithfulness [hesed], even when His people are unfaithful to Him. Always at the heart of hesed lies God’s generous sense of compassion, grace, and mercy.
Hesed surpasses ordinary kindness and friendship. It is the inclination of the heart to show “amazing grace” to the one who is loved. Hesed runs deeper than social expectations, responsibilities, fluctuating emotions, or what is deserved or earned by the recipient. Hesed finds its home in committed, familial love, and it comes to life in actions.
The message of the gospel—God’s act of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus—is rooted in hesed. Hesed describes the disposition of God’s heart not only toward His people but to all humanity. The love of God extends far beyond duty or expectation. His forgiveness of sin fulfills a need that is basic to all other needs in the relationship between human beings and God—the restoration and continuation of fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. God’s hesed manifested in forgiveness makes a relationship with Him possible. That forgiveness comes to us freely as a gift from God based on the sacrificial act of Christ.