In the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we read a lot about God’s loving kindness. “Loving-kindness” is a sweet phrase, pretty and nice. It is usually a translation of the Hebrew word chesed, but there are many other possible ways that this Hebrew word can be translated. Some of the other possible translations of chesed start to hint at a more complex meaning of this word, a meaning that is more powerful than the sweet and nice. Another translation of chesed that might be familiar is “steadfast love.” However, when I was taking Hebrew in seminary, I learned to translate chesed as “loyalty,” for there is a really strong element of loyalty in God’s chesed. It is one of those Hebrew words or concepts that does not have a direct translation into English, and therefore can be hard for us to grasp.
The preacher Elizabeth P. Randall writes, “Steadfast love, often linked with faithfulness, is the loving commitment of God to act on our behalf at every moment in the history of salvation. It is God’s chesedthat is with Joseph in prison (Gen. 39:21) and that leads Israel out of Egypt (Exod.15:13). It is the source of confidence for the psalmist who sings, ‘Surely chesed shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of The Lord forever’ (Ps. 23:6), the last verse of the well-loved 23rd Psalm that begins, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ The prophets know that God’s chesed will bring restoration to a ruined Israel (Isa. 54:8, 10).”
Chesed does have dimensions of love, of steadfastness, and certainly of unbreakable loyalty. It also has an element of power, of protection, of that which can triumph over adversity and evil. Chesed, especially God’s chesed towards God’s beloved ones, is not just nice, kind, or sweet, although it certainly carries with it God’s “goodness and mercy.” It is something with strength, a force that is not to be reckoned with or dismissed. This chesed is something important, and it tells us something about what God is like.
Sometimes, I think we want to confine God and God’s chesed to the realm of the nice, the sweet, that which is easily understood, subdued, and non-threatening. “Loving-kindness” is certainly a good thing, and often seems in short supply in the world and our lives. But “loving-kindness” sounds a little tame, hardly like something that can rock our world, that can triumph over evil, desolation, and horrors. God’s steadfast love, God’s loyalty, God’s chesed carries a depth and strength beyond mere “kindness.” It is what is with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, bringing us safely through. It is formidable, this chesed that even conquers death. The God that embraces us lovingly, holding us tenderly like a parent or a lover, is also indomitable. God’s chesed involves pillars of smoke and fire and a whole new lives being brought up out of dust, ashes and ruins. It is a loyalty so un-breakable that it defies human reason and human ways. Merciful, yes, but also very mighty, very powerful, with a grip that holds us relentlessly. So it is with a bit of fear and trembling I pray, “O God, may your chesed be with me all the days of my life.”