God's grace is a free gift, often described with terms like “undeserved” or “unmerited favor.” He doesn’t count peoples’ successes and failures to determine who receives his love or life. Instead, from the kind intention of his will, God gives all goodness freely, and in the Bible he describes himself as gracious. Numerous Bible verses reflect on the significance and depth of God's grace, and it can help to start with the Hebrew meaning of grace.
In Exodus 34:6, the biblical authors use “gracious” (khen in Hebrew) to capture one way God describes himself. But what does “gracious” mean? In our modern world, “gracious” often describes a generally kind or courteous person. Sometimes, it refers to gentle attitudes in difficult situations — “He was gracious to that rude customer.” Or it can illustrate a forgiving, compassionate person — “How gracious of her to give you a warning,” or “The judge’s lenient sentence was gracious.”
These different “gracious” definitions are united by one key theme: one gives goodness to another out of love — not because the other deserves it. The biblical meaning of grace conveys the same key idea. So when God describes his own personal character as gracious toward all human beings, he’s saying he sees us as treasures, he delights in us, and he is giving good life to everyone.
Grace as Beauty
Understanding God’s grace in the Bible starts with unpacking the Hebrew word for “grace,” khen (חֵן). (To pronounce this word, say “hen” while clearing your throat a little at the beginning.) In Hebrew, khen is anything that induces a favorable response or something we find ourselves drawn to, something elegant or charming or beautiful. Anything that brings us delight could be called khen.
In Proverbs 3:22, the biblical authors compare God’s wisdom to a necklace called “an ornament of khen,” usually translated as “an ornament of grace.” Wearing a necklace brings delight to those who wear it and to those seeing it worn. In Psalm 45:2, a gifted poet is said to have lips of khen, most often translated as “lips of grace.” The poet’s lips create beauty when he uses them for his poetry. This is a picture of a human artist sharing God’s grace to all. In Proverbs 5:19, a deer that moves swiftly and elegantly is called a “deer of khen,” or a graceful deer.
The Hebrew meaning of grace is multifaceted, and these examples of khen capture beauty, elegance, and things worth treasuring. To find khen is to find treasure.
Grace as Favor
In biblical passages where someone asks to be treated like a treasure, or to be treated favorably, we see another meaning of grace in the Bible. To be “found as khen” in someone’s eyes is a common biblical phrase, appearing 47 times throughout Scripture. This phrase is used exclusively when someone of higher status looks upon someone of lower status with favor.
For example, Joseph was a slave who found khen in the eyes of his master Potiphar (Genesis 39:4). When Potiphar looked at Joseph, he didn’t treat him poorly. Yahweh was with Joseph, and Potiphar delighted in what he saw. Potiphar lifts Joseph to a high status and puts him in charge of his household.
Another example of this is when the landowner Boaz cares for Ruth, a widowed immigrant, by letting her harvest crops from his field, free of charge. Responding to his generosity she says, “Why have I found khen in your eyes that you should notice me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).
And in Esther 4:8 and 8:3, Esther approaches King Ahasuerus to ask that her people be spared from destruction. She asks for favor to be shown toward her people. Esther is a subordinate asking a superior who does not have to grant the request, but he does, and this is an act of grace.
When someone in authority finds someone of lesser status as worthy of khen (favor), that person of lower status will be treated with higher regard than their true position would necessitate. And the opposite is true too. Someone in a lowly position can ask someone superior to find khen in their eyes for them. This is what it means to “find khen” in the eyes of another.
God Is Full of Grace
When someone is consistently favorable towards people of lower status, they could be characterized as being full of khen. This is khen being used as an adjective, and the adjective form is khanun (חַנּוּן). (How is that throat clearing going?)
In the Bible, the most khanun person is God himself, who is uncreated and above all created things, including humanity. But God consistently looks upon humans with favor. God treasures us because he is the artist who made every one of us. In fact, the story of the Bible shows humans constantly messing up, corrupting creation and one another through violence and fear, deception and greed. But God’s grace is the undeserved gift that allows us to heal and find freedom from corruption. He doesn’t wait until we free ourselves by becoming worthy. He gives goodness to all out of pure love, nothing more and nothing less. God is khanun; he is gracious.
In Exodus 34, God has set the Israelites free from slavery, and in that freedom, he also made an agreement with them. But the people violate the terms of this agreement almost immediately. Subverting our expectations, God responds to this rebellion with grace — big time. He describes himself as kind, compassionate, slow to anger, and gracious. In this moment, God is telling his people that he favors them, even still. When we rebel and choose our ways over God’s, he is for us, and the grace of God compels him to love without end.
The Bible celebrates this attribute of God, his graciousness, the consistent favor he shows toward humanity. We can trust God’s grace toward us, and we can feel empowered to ask it of him. The meaning of grace is unpacked throughout Scripture and shown to be the undeserved gift it truly is.
The Lord is compassionate and khanun (gracious),
slow to anger and abounding in loyal love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he stay angry.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
Be khanun (gracious) to me,
according to your loyal love,
according to your compassion,
blot out my rebellious acts.
What is God’s grace in the Bible? It’s an action, and it’s the essence of God’s very nature. He always shows us favor, even when we betray him or turn our backs on him. Throughout the Bible, we see the God of the universe consistently finding ways to reconcile with a hard-hearted, fearful, hurting humanity. He loves us, and because of that, he gives us the best he’s got, including himself.