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What's the Meaning of God's Grace in the Bible?

The Complex and Surprising Answer to Why God is Gracious.

To Be Gracious

In Exodus 34:6, God describes himself as gracious. This is a word that’s probably pretty familiar to you. But taking time to think through the different meanings of this word and how it’s used throughout the Bible will help us better understand what it means for a person to be gracious. And more specifically, what it means for the God of the universe to be gracious.

In contemporary English, to be gracious typically means you are kind, courteous, and even delightful. We hear this word used to describe someone’s surprising and kind attitude towards another person or in a difficult situation—“he was so gracious with that rude stranger,” or “she exudes grace under pressure.” Someone who is gracious is an enjoyable person to be around because they bring light and life to others.

Another common English meaning of gracious is to be forgiving, merciful, and compassionate—“it was gracious of her to just give you a warning,” or “the judge’s lenient verdict was gracious.”

These definitions of “grace” and “gracious” can be connected by the idea that to be gracious is to extend kindness or show delight towards someone who may not be deserving of that treatment. These two meanings are also connected in Hebrew thought. So when God calls himself gracious, what he means is that he sees you as a treasure, he delights in you, regardless of your status or behavior.

Grace as Beauty

Let’s start to unpack this by looking at the Hebrew word for “grace,” khen (חֵן). (To pronounce this word, say “hen” but clear your throat a little at the beginning.) In Hebrew, khen is anything that induces a favorable response or something we find ourselves drawn to. It might elicit a favorable response because it is elegant or charming, or it might be because it is beautiful. Anything that we encounter that brings us delight could be called khen.

In Proverbs 3:22, God’s wisdom is compared to a necklace and is called “an ornament of khen,” usually translated as “an ornament of grace.” Think about it. Wearing a necklace brings delight to those who wear it and to those who see it worn. And the teacher is asking you to think of God’s wisdom like that necklace.

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.

In Proverbs 5:19, a deer that moves swiftly and elegantly is called a “deer of khen,” or a graceful deer.

All of these examples of khen are describing beauty, elegance, and things worth treasuring. To find khen is to find a treasure.

Grace as Favor

Another way we see this word used in the Bible is when someone asks to be treated like a treasure, that is, to be treated favorably. This is what it means to be “found as khen” in someone’s eyes. That phrase, “to find khen in the eyes” is a popular biblical phrase, used 47 times throughout Scripture. And it is exclusively used 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 just see some lowly slave. He saw someone worth delighting in because Yahweh was with Joseph. Potiphar’s favor towards Joseph came in the form of putting him in charge of his household and entrusting all of his assets to him.

Another great example is when a landowner named Boaz decides to take care of a widowed immigrant named Ruth by letting her glean in his field for free. In response to this generosity she says, “Why have I found khen in your eyes that you should notice me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

Someone in authority can find someone of lesser status as worthy of khen (favor). As a result, 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 for someone to “find khen” in the eyes of another.

Grace as Action

Let’s take this further. Khen can also be an action—you can favor someone. In this sense, khen is being used as a verb, and the verb form of khen is khanan (חנן). (Let’s practice that pronunciation again. Say “hanan” but clear your throat!) When used as a verb, this word means you are bestowing khen—delight, favor, or value—on someone. And remember, this always refers to an act of generosity or favor from someone of higher status to someone of lower status.

For example, in Esther 4:8 and 8:3, Esther goes before King Ahasuerus to ask for her people to be spared from destruction. She asks for khanan. Esther is a subordinate making a request to a superior who is not obligated to grant her request. But he does so, and this is called khanan (showing favor).

A Gracious God

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 person that shows the most khanun to others is God himself. Every human is of lower status than the creator God, but God consistently looks upon humans with favor. God treasures us, and he doesn’t show us favor because we deserve it. In fact, the story of the Bible is one that shows humans as constantly messing up—we lie, cheat, steal, and kill. We go out of our way to show God we don’t deserve to be favored. But despite our failings, God is khanun; he is gracious.

The context of the Exodus passage where God first calls himself gracious is a powerful example of this. God has just rescued the Israelites from slavery, brought them to safety, and made a covenant with them. And the first thing they do is make an idol statue, breaking two of the commandments of the covenant! And God’s response is to call himself “gracious.” He will continue to show favor on humanity even when we rebel.

This attribute of God, his graciousness, the consistent favor he shows towards humanity, is something the Bible celebrates. It is presented throughout Scripture as the undeserved gift it truly is. Take Psalm 103:8-10 as an example.

The Lord is compassionate and khanun (gracious) Slow to anger and abounding in loyal love. He will not always strive with us, Nor will he keep his anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

Psalm 103:8-10

We can trust that God will be gracious with us, and it’s even something we can feel empowered to ask of him. We see this in Psalm 51 when David asks for God’s graciousness even though his circumstances are the result of his own sin.

Be khanun (gracious) to me, according to your loyal love, according to your compassion, blot out my rebellious acts.

Psalm 51:1

The story of the Bible is about how God is relentlessly pursuing a relationship with humanity. He continually strives to show us favor even when we betray him or turn our backs on him. Throughout the Bible, we see the God of the universe find ways to reconcile with a hard-hearted and rebellious humanity. And that’s what it means that God is gracious.

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