There’s an old hymn that we don’t sing much any more, but it’s worth re-visiting because the final verse puts words around the futility of language in expressing the inexpressible:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.”
(Frederich M. Lehman, The Love of God)
Singer, songwriter, and author Michael Card describes words (somewhat less poetically) as “clumsy bricks” we attempt to employ in defining concepts. While they enable us to have thoughts and conversations about God and about intangibles such as hope and love, ultimately, meaning cannot always be contained within syllables. In his biblical study, Card has found this to be particularly evident with the Hebrew word hesed.
The Struggle to Translate Hesed
Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness is founded on the mystery of this unique word. With no clear path to the English language, hesed has appeared in various versions of the Bible under a number of different labels. In fact, in 1535, Miles Coverdale jerry-rigged the term “lovingkindness” in an attempt to translate hesed, and it is still in use in the American Standard Version. More recently, the English Standard Version has employed the phrase “steadfast love,” and the New Living favors “unfailing love,” but, in reality, the struggle with translation is only a pale adumbration of the true challenge–that of wrapping our minds around a God who hands out second chances to the guilty and opens the door of His life to welcome frail humanity.
Michael Card’s definition of hesed is simple and direct:
“When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.” (5)
Hesed is put on display richly in God’s Old Testament dealings with the nation Israel, for He met their faithless betrayal with forgiveness and restoration. Then, Solomon stepped into the unbroken stream of hesed when he ascended to the throne of David:
“LORD God of Israel,
there is no God like you
in heaven or on earth,
who keeps his covenant and hesed
with your servants who walk before you
with all their heart.” (II Chronicles 6:14)
The temple musicians set to music their wonder at hesed in abundance:
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; his hesed endures forever.” (I Chronicles 16:34)
And the psalmists vented their outrage over its lack:
“God of my praise, do not be silent, for wicked and deceitful mouths open against me . . .Let no one show him hesed . . . for he did not think to show hesed.” (Psalm 109:1, 2, 12, 16)
The Struggle to Embody Hesed
The prophet Hosea was assigned the task of putting God’s hesed on display in his calling to love and marry a prostitute, in spite of her ongoing unfaithfulness. “Though she has no right to expect anything from Hosea, he will lavish everything on her. Their relationship will incarnate the meaning of hesed.” (89)
The Apostle John picks up the theme in the New Testament with his description of Jesus, the Word, who came to us “from the Father, full of hesed and truth.” In eight of Jesus’s thirty parables, he defines hesed either by its lack (the unforgiving servant) or by its rich exemplification (the Good Samaritan).
Card warns readers who seek to embody hesed that our own experience will be like Jesus’s: misunderstanding and rejection. While we are often unclear about God’s expectations for us, the example of Jesus bore out the truth that “hesed is always something you do.” (116) This has vast implications in a world where “doing justly, loving mercy (hesed), and walking humbly with God” may be subject to wildly disparate interpretations.
And since hesed is something we do, what are the implications of such a counter-cultural doing?
- How faithfully is my “doing” flowing from my “loving?” Is my “love” in keeping with the love of God toward the undeserving?
- How would my actions and motives be different if I understood–and trusted–God’s deep and never failing love, mercy, and kindness toward me?
- Can 21st century believers find the sweet spot where our compassionate outrage over injustice is both offered to God with trust and paired with action on behalf of the oppressed?
Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Because of the LORD’s hesed,
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