The best way to determine the meaning of a given Biblical concept is to examine its usage in context. By such means we can get a complete understanding of hesed as it's used in the Old Testament.
1. It is used of human beings.
It was used of humans toward humans, as in doing favors or benefits for one another:
Gen 20:13; 21:23; 40:14
Judges 1:24; 8:35
1 Sam 15:6; 20:8, 14, 15
2 Sam. 2:5; 3:8; 9:1, 3, 7; 10:2, 24; 16:17
1 Kings 2:7
Prov 19:22; 20:6; 31:26
Esth 2:9, 17
1 Chr 19:2
2 Chr 24:22
In Genesis 20:13 Abraham asks Sarah to tell people, everywhere they go, that he is her brother. In this way, says Abraham, she can show her hesed for him.
In Gen 21:23, following the making of a treaty or covenant between Abimelech and Abraham, Abimelech and his commander Phicol ask Abraham to "Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same hesed I have shown you." Perhaps some of what is meant by this hesed is expressed at the beginning of the same verse: "...You will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants."
In Genesis 40 the Pharaoh's Cupbearer and Baker find themselves in prison with Joseph. They dream puzzling dreams, but Joseph interprets them for them. After interpreting the dream of the Cupbearer he tells him, "...When all goes well with you, remember me and show me hesed; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison." (Gen 40:14).
In Josh 2:12, after Rahab has given aid to the spies, she makes a request of them: "Now then, please swear to me by Yahweh that you will show hesed to my family, because I have shown hesed to you. Give me a sure sign..."
The house of Joseph sent spies to check out the city of Bethel. There, "the spies saw a man coming out of the city and they said to him, 'Show us how to get into the city and we will show you hesed.'" (Judges 1:24)
No sooner has Gideon died than the Israelites went right back to worshiping the Baals. It is said that "they did not remember Yahweh their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side." And as if that was not bad enough, "They also failed to show hesed to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) for all the good things he had done for them." (Judges 8:35)
King Saul is planning on attacking the Amalekites. But first he had to send the Kenites away, so that he didn't accidentally attack them too, because they "...showed hesed to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt." (1 Sam 15:6)
David is fleeing from Saul and goes to Jonathan. In 1 Sam 20:8, David asks for hesed from Jonathan:
"As for you, show hesed to your servant, for you have brought him into a covenant with you before Yahweh. If I am guilty, then kill me yourself! Why hand me over to your father?"
If David in some way is guilty of breaking the covenant, then showing hesed means giving death to David. In 1 Sam 20:14-15, Jonathan requests hesed from David:
"But show me unfailing hesed like that of Yahweh as long as I live, so that I may not be killed, and do not ever cut off your hesed from my family - not even when Yahweh has cut off every one of David's enemies from the face of the earth."
Life is to be preserved by David. Notice that in 1 Sam 20:17 Jonathan had David reaffirm the covenant because of ahab for him.
In 2 Sam 2:5 hesed is shown by the men of Jabesh Gilead when they bury Saul, their master.
In 2 Sam 3:8 Abner expresses that he has shown hesed for the house of Saul, his family, and his friends; he has not handed Ish-Bosheth over to the forces of David, and yet Ish-Bosheth has the gall to make accusations against him? It would seem that the one who shows hesed is trustworthy. To express a lack of trust in someone is to bring that person's hesed into question.
In 2 Sam 9 David feels compelled to show hesed to Mephibosheth for the sake of Jonathan. In 2 Sam 9:7-10 hesed is expressed in a very tangible way:
"Don't be afraid," David said to him, "for I will surely show you hesed for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table." Mephibosheth bowed down and said, "What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?" Then the king summoned Ziba, Saul's servant, and said to him, "I have given your master's grandson everything that belonged to Saul and his family. You and your sons and your servants are to farm the land for him and bring in the crops, so that your master's grandson may be provided for. And Mephibosheth, grandson of your master, will always eat at my table." (Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.)
After David was chased from Jerusalem, Hushai is left behind as a spy for David. Hushai gives praise to Absalom and says, "Long live the king!" Absalom is suspicious though, and asks Hushai, "Is this the hesed you show your friend? Why didn't you go with your friend [David]?" (2 Sam 16:17). Hushai was not behaving in a manner consistent with his hesed for David. A friend would not normally turn his back on a friend like that.
Barzillai of Gilead stood by David when he fled from Absalom. Therefore David, on his deathbed, charges Solomon to show hesed to the sons of Barzillai, and to "let them be among those who eat at your table." (1 Kings 2:7).
Psalm 141:5 is interesting in its use of hesed:
Let a righteous man strike me - it is hesed;
let him rebuke me - it is oil on my head.
My head will not refuse it.
Punishment from the righteous is recognized as an act of hesed, and hesed is equated with oil on the head, which stood for blessing and honor. Hesed, according to Glueck, should be "understood as conduct in accordance with a mutual relationship of rights and duties."
Proverbs 19:22 reads:
What a man desires is hesed;
better to be poor than a liar.
It is clear from this passage that truthfulness is an important aspect of hesed. A person showing hesed is displaying truthfulness. The proverb indicates that it is better to keep hesed, and perhaps suffer loss, than to become a liar. And clearly, therefore, a liar is a person who fails to maintain hesed. In Absalom's eyes, Hushai, since he had (apparently) turned his back on David, had become a liar, since he failed to keep hesed with David. All the more surprising, then, that Absalom listened to Husahi's advice later (this is why 2 Sam 17:14 states "For Yahweh had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom", because there was no good natural explanation for Absalom's reaction to Hushai, a proved liar who didn't keep hesed. That Absalom should listen to him was obvious proof of God's intervention in the situation, since on the basis of hesed, Absalom should have suspected all along that Hushai was a spy for David.)
Proverbs 20:6 records:
Many a man claims to have hesed,
but a faithful man, who can find?
Not only is a person with hesed truthful, he is also faithful. The proverb indicates that many people may claim to have hesed for you, but only a very few will demonstrate it by actually remaining faithful.
In Proverbs 31:26, in the description of the strong woman, the author writes that:
Her mouth opens with wisdom;
and the law of hesed is on her tongue.
It becomes clear that there is some relationship between being wise and having hesed.
In Esther 2:9 and 17 Esther wins the hesed of the king of Persia, and he provides specially for her and sees that she is treated in an exceptional way, to the extent that she is made the queen of Persia (vs. 17). Needless to say, this hesed was probably the result of the king's ahab for her.
In Ruth 3:10 Boaz tells Ruth that the hesed she has shown him, in giving him the opportunity to redeem her, as the law allowed, was even greater than the hesed she had shown toward her mother-in-law in Ruth 1:16-18. Her actions were consistent with the relationships she was involved with; she was following the dictates of the obligations willingly and freely.
In 1 Chron 19:2, when Nahash, the king of Amon, dies, David decides to show hesed for his successor, Hanun, because Nahash had always shown hesed toward David. Strangely, Hanun behaves in a manner very inconsistent with hesed, suspecting David of spying and plotting to overthrow the Amonites, a thing which David could never even imagine because of hesed, since hesed involves truth and faithfulness. Needless to say, this breaking of hesed by Hanun resulted in David's wrath (1 Chron 19:5-20:3).
In 2 Chron 24:22 the author tells us of an act of wickedness on the part of Joash, king of Judah. Joash kills Zechariah the priest, and it is said that this indicated he did not remember the hesed Zechariah's father, Jehoiada, had shown him. As Zechariah dies he tells the king, "May Yahweh see this and call you to account." 2 Chron 24:25 reads:
When the Arameans withdrew, they left Joash severely wounded. His officials conspired against him for murdering the son of Jehoiada the priest, and they killed him in his bed.
Failure to keep hesed is a dangerous thing, and a great evil.
Hesed is extended to the lowly, needy, and miserable:
Genesis 24:49; 47:29
1 Kings 20:31
Prov 3:3; 11:17; 14:22; 16:6; 20:28; 21:21
Job 20:6, 14
Psa 109:12, 16
Hos 4:1; 6:4, 6; 10:12; 12:6
In Gen 24:49, the servant of Abraham has come to Abraham's relatives, and has given them the story of his journey, and what transpired with Rebekah. He has presented the need, and now requests that the family of Abraham show hesed to Abraham and allow Rebekah to return with him to become the wife of Isaac.
In Gen 47:29, Joseph's father, Jacob, asks that Joseph show hesed toward him, and bury him in the promised land, rather than in Egypt. Joseph, be it remembered, is now a major ruler in Egypt.
In Josh 2:14 the spies ask for an agreement - a trade if you will. If Rahab will not tell the government of Jericho where they went, then they will show her hesed, and she and her family will not be killed when the Israelites invade.
In 1 Kings 20:31 the officials of Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, tell him that they have heard the kings of Israel have hesed. Since Aram is loosing the war, perhaps a treaty (or covenant) can be made that will preserve the country of Aram from total annihilation or subjugation. The plan is successful, and in verse 34 the writer records that a treaty was made (much to the displeasure of Yahweh). It is clear from this passage that the Israelites were noted for their honesty, truthfulness, and faithfulness, and so it was known a treaty with them was a treaty that would be kept. The Israelites were known for their hesed.
In Prov 3:3 Solomon writes:
Let hesed and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
The result of this activity would be the winning of a good name (i.e., a good reputation) and favor from both God and people.
The incident between the king of Aram and the king of Israel recorded in 1 Kings is a good illustration of this principle, at least from the human point of view.
Proverbs 11:17 contrasts the man of hesed with the cruel man, the man who is fierce and mean-tempered. Proverbs 14:22, likewise, contrasts the wicked, who plot evil, who go astray, with those who plan good, who will, as a result, find hesed and faithfulness. Hesed is very valuable. Prov 21:21 states that the one who pursues righteousness and hesed will in fact find not only righteousness, but also life and honor. And more than that, according to Prov 16:6, it also covers sin, or as it is often translated, "atones" for it. The actual meaning of this is explained by the line in parallel with it, which states that "through the fear of Yahweh, a man avoids evil." And so hesed keeps a person from sinning. A person who keeps hesed will not lightly do anything to harm the one for whom he has hesed. Righteousness comes as a result of this hesed for God. Understandably, then this verse equates the fear of Yahweh with hesed. In other words, an aspect of hesed is the fear of Yahweh.
Proverbs 20:28 stresses the importance of hesed for a king. It should not be asked whether the hesed is directed toward the king, or from the king, since hesed is a reciprocal action. Without hesed, the king could not rule. See also Isaiah 16:5.
Psalm 109 records David's request for curses against his enemies. In verses 12 and 16 the word hesed appears. David asks that no one extend hesed to his enemy, and that no one pity his children, because he did not have hesed for the poor, needy, and brokenhearted. The reciprocal nature of hesed is expressed, and pity, or kindness for the disadvantaged is described as an aspect of hesed. This should not be surprising, because in the covenant between God and Israel, for instance, kindness for the poor was one part of the covenant, and therefore an expression of hesed (see Lev 25:35-43; Deut 15:7-11).
In Hosea 4:1 charges are brought against the people of Israel. Yahweh says that "There is no faithfulness, no hesed, no knowledge of God in the land" All three of these concepts - hesed, faithfulness, and knowledge of God - seem to be related. And the breakdown, in the verses which follow, is that the Israelites are not keeping the covenant, and so the expression of a kept covenant - hesed, faithfulness, and knowledge of God - are lacking. In Hosea 6:4 Ephraim is told that its hesed is like he morning mist - certainly not true hesed at all: hesed in name only. Hosea 6:6 expresses that what God really desires from people is not outward religiosity and the keeping of the rituals, but rather the keeping of the heart of the covenant: hesed instead of sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Clearly expressed, then, is the synonymous character of the "knowledge of God" and hesed. Again, in Hosea 10:12, the thought seen before in Proverbs, that the sowing of righteousness, will lead to hesed, its fruit, is expressed. Hosea 12:6 relates hesed to justice and a close relation to God.
Micah 6:8 is a famous passage, used in a popular Christian song. It is a summary of what God expects of human beings under the covenant (notice the same idea is repeated in James 1:27): to act justly, love (ahab) hesed, and to keep ever close to God. Zech 7:9 makes a statement nearly identical to that of Micah.
In Dan 1:9, as a result of God's activity, an official of the Babylonian government is brought into a close relationship with Daniel, as indicated by the fact that he shows Daniel hesed.
Affection of Israel for Yahweh is expressed by hesed:
2 Chron 32:32
In 2 Chron 32:32 the Chronicler tells us that Hezekiah did acts of hesed, which are recorded in Isaiah and in the lost official records of the kings of Judah and Israel. What are the acts of hesed? Look at Isaiah 36-39 to see a description of all the things he did. His life could be described as a life of hesed - he was a relatively faithful keeper of the covenant.
In the same light, Nehemiah in Neh 13:14 prays that God will remember the righteous deeds he has done and his service of hesed for the house of God. He expects something positive from God as a result of correctly keeping the covenant.
Isaiah 57:1 explains that to be a man of hesed does not necessarily mean to be a man of ripe old age. The righteous sometimes perish to be spared from evil. Notice that a man of hesed is described as a righteous man.
In Jer 2:2 God says that he remembers how well Israel expressed hesed for him, by following him through the wilderness to the promised land. hesed, to be real, requires an outward and obvious expression - hesed is a behavior. In Isaiah 40:6, though, this hesed does not usually endure long. People are like grass, and so is their hesed. In Jonah 2:8 those who cling to idols have abandoned their hesed (cf. 20:3-6), and with it cannot expect God's deliverance from trouble. Thankfully, God's hesed is not like human hesed.
Hesed appears, perhaps, most often as a possession, attribute, or expression of God.
Gen 19:19; 39:21
Deut 7:9, 12
2 Sam 7:15; 22:51
1 Kings 3:6; 8:23
1 Chron 17:13
2 Chron 1:8; 6:14
Ezra 7:28; 9:9
Neh 1:5; 9:32
6:4; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6; 31:7, 16, 21; 32:10; 33:18, 22; 36:7, 10; 42:8; 44:26; 48:9; 51:1; 52:8; 59:10, 17; 66:20; 85:7; 86:13; 89:28, 33; 90:14; 94:18; 107:8, 15, 21, 31; 109:41, 76, 88, 124, 149, 159; 143:8, 12; 144:2; 146:11
Job 10:12; 37:13
Ruth 1:8; 2:20
In Genesis 19:19 Lot, in realizing that he must leave Sodom, but not willing to flee to the mountains, expresses to the two angels of God that they have shown great hesed toward him, in warning him of the impending disaster. In Gen 39:21 God shows Joseph hesed; the visible expression of this hesed was the fact that he found favor in the eyes of the warden of the prison (cf. the statement seen earlier in Prov 3:3-4).
In Ex 15:13 God's "unfailing hesed" is paralleled with God's "strength", both of which lead his people to the promised land.
Deut 7:9-13 records:
Know therefore that Yahweh your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant and his hesed to a thousand generations of those who love (ahab) him and keep his commands. But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees an laws I give you today. If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then Yahweh your God will keep his covenant and hesed with you, as he swore to your forefathers. He will love (ahab) you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land - your grain, new wine and oil - the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to give you.
To those who love (ahab) God, he will keep his covenant and his hesed. When God displays hesed he displays love (ahab) for his people, and the practical benefit of this is material prosperity (see also Neh 1:5 and 9:32).
In 2 Sam 7:15 (cf. 1 Chron 17:13; see also Psa 89:28, 33) God tells David that his hesed will never be removed from his son, unlike what happened with Saul. In other words, the covenant with David is permanent, and not dependent on whether David's descendant do right. However, verse 14 makes it clear that this hesed has a positive and negative side to it, for in 14 God says that "I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men." However, this does not mean that the covenant is at an end, or that hesed has ceased. Rather it is the inhibiting side of hesed, the side called "wrath". 2 Sam 22:51 expresses a similar thought, that the hesed is permanent.
In 1 Kings 3:6 Solomon expresses the reason for God's hesed toward David: it is because David was faithful, and righteous, and upright in heart. The expression of God's hesed for David is the fact that he has a son to sit on the throne (see also 2 Chron 1:8): confirmation of the statements in 2 Samuel.
In Solomon's prayer of dedication for the temple he once again praises God for keeping "your covenant and hesed with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way." (1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chron 6:14). The completion of the temple was viewed as an expression of God' hesed.
In the time of Ezra, the Jews were returning from the captivity, and would soon rebuild the temple and city. Glueck writes:
Ezra 7:28 and 9:9 mention the hesed which the Jews had received from the Persians during Ezra's time. They had been permitted to return to Jerusalem and had even been granted public funds for the restoration of the Temple. The Jews, then, had been treated in a manner appropriate for loyal subjects, namely - with hesed, as had been done in former times by a king of Israel. But Ezra and the rest of the Jews clearly understood that His hesed was not voluntarily shown them by the Persians. It was induced by God....Yahweh, "the God of our fathers" as Ezra calls him, in order to emphasize the close relationship between Yahweh and the Jews, has shown them the hesed which is in accordance with this relationship, by inducing the Persians to deal with them in the spirit of covenantal loyalty.
A common theme in the Psalms is the cry to God for help, and the expectation of deliverance which is based on God's unfailing hesed. hesed is described together with God's attributes of strength and with God pictured as a fortress for the righteous (see Psa 6:4; 18:50; 21:7; 25:6; 31:7, 16, 21; 32:10; 33:18, 22; 36:7, 10; 42:8; 44:26; 48:9; 51:1; 52:8; 59:10, 17; 66:20; 85:7; 86:13; 90:14; 94:18; 107:8, 15, 21, 31; 109:41, 76, 88, 124, 149, 159; 143:8, 12; 144:2; 146:11). The deliverance comes on the basis of the covenant that God had made with Israel, and deliverance from enemies, or trouble - or restoration after sin - is believed to be an expression of God's hesed.
In Job 10:12 Job complains that the misery he is experiencing seems inconsistent with God's hesed. hesed is placed in parallel construction with "life". In Job 37:13 Elihu tells Job about God, and how he brings storms:
He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his land and show his love.
Rain may either be for punishment, as it was in Noah's day, or it can be for blessing, as to prevent drought.
In Ruth 1:8 Naomi asks that God would show hesed to her two daughters-in-law, just as they had shown it t her and to their dead husbands. And in Ruth 2:20, as a result of Ruth's relationship with Boaz, Naomi says that God is showing hesed. In Jer 31:3, in discussing the coming restoration of Israel, the prophet records:
Yahweh appeared to us in the past, saying:
"I have loved you with an everlasting love (ahab);
I have drawn you with hesed."
And because of this attitude, God is going to rebuild Israel, and make life pleasant for her.
At the beginning of Daniel's prayer, while Israel is in exile, Daniel says:
O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant and love (hesed) with all who love (ahab) him and keep his commands. (Dan 9:4)
In Micah 7:20, Micah affirms that God will restore Israel and show hesed to her. He parallels the word truth [emet] with the word hesed.
1. Hesed is grouped with other divine attributes
a. hesed and emet
2 Sam 2:6; 15:20
25:10; 26:3; 40:10, 11; 57:3; 61:7; 85:10; 86:15; 89:14; 115:1; 117:2; 138:2
Hesed is found together with the word emet, which is often translated as "truth" or "faithfulness". When the two words are jammed together, as they are in Gen 24:27; Ex 34:6; 2 Sam 2:6; 15:20; Psa 25:10; 40:10, 11; 57:3; 61:7; 85:10; 86:15; 89:14; 115:1; and 138:2 (hesed v'emet), they are a hendiadys. This means that the two words together express a single idea, something like "faithful love", or "devotion". When the two words are put together in a parallel construction as in Psa 117:2 and Micah 7:20 they are being used as if they are synonymous.
b. hesed and emunah
Psa 88:11; 89:2, 24; 92:2; and 98:3.
emunah is often translated as "faithfulness". It is derived from the same root as emet, and has a similar meaning and usage.
Its use in Psa 98:3, together with hesed has the appearance of hendiadys. In the other appearances it is in parallel with hesed.
c. hesed and rehumim
Psa 7:8, 9; 103:4
Rehumim is derived from the noun, "womb" and it has the sense of "compassion". In Psa 77:8, 9 Asaph is suffering and wants deliverance from his troubles. He asks:
Has his hesed vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion? Selah.
Hesed is related to God's promise, his mercy, and his compassion.
In Psalm 103:4 and Hosea 2:19 rehumim and hesed are used as hendiadys. In the passage in Hosea 2:20 the result of God's betrothal in righteousness, justice, compassion, and hesed is that Israel will know God. Hesed is related to the knowledge of God. In Jer 16:5 hesed is used together with rehumim and "blessing".
d. hesed and mishpat
Mishpat is a word meaning "justice". In Jer 9:24 the prophet writes:
"But let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am Yahweh who exercises hesed,
justice and righteousness on Earth,
for these I delight," declares Yahweh.
Hesed is closely related to justice and righteousness, as all being attributes of God.
In Psa 101:1 hesed and mishpat are combined as a hendiadys, as one and the same idea.
e. hesed and zedekah
In Psa 36:10 David writes:
Continue your hesed to those who know you,
your righteousness (zedekah) to the upright in heart.
Zedekah is translated as "righteousness" and is treated as a synonym of hesed. God's hesed or zedekah is shown to those who know God, and those who know God are those who are upright.
f. hesed and tov
The one who is upright, who knows God, who does God's will, will be pursued by God's "good" or "goodness" (Heb. tov), and his hesed. (Psa 23:6)
God's hesed is a) abundant, great, and full in extent (Ex 20:6; 34:6, 7; Num 14:18, 19; Deut 5:10; 7:9; Neh 9:17; 13:22; Lam 3:32; Psa 5:7; 33:5; 36:5; 57:10; 69:13; 86:5, 15; 103:8, 11; 108:4; 106:7, 45; 119:64; 145:8; Jer 32:18; Jon 2:13 and 4:2) and b) everlasting (Ezra 3:11; Isa 54:8; Jer 33:11; 1 Chron 16:34, 41; 2 Chron 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Psa 63:3; 69:16; 100:5; 103:17; 106:1; 107:1; 109:21; 118:1-4, 29; 136:1-26; and 138:8).
God's hesed is everlasting, enduring forever. This makes it clear that God is truly a faithful God, a God worthy of our trust.
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