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How Do We Describe God’s Love?

Exploring the Hebrew word khesed

God loves you. In fact, God’s love is so amazing and enduring that there is an entire poem enthusiastically celebrating God’s love in the Bible. You’ll find it in Psalm 118. The poem begins and ends with this line:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.

Psalm 118:1

The Hebrew word translated as “love” in Psalm 118 is khesed.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his khesed endures forever.

Psalm 118:1

Translating Khesed

Let’s take a closer look at the word khesed. You may have seen this word before spelled as “chesed.” The problem with this spelling for English speakers is that we will likely pronounce the “ch” like the beginning of the word “cheese.” But in Hebrew, the sound is in the back of your throat like you are lightly coughing. That is why we spell it as “khesed.” The “kh” is to remind you to do that little back of the throat tickle.

There is no good English translation for the word khesed, as we don’t have a word in English that encompasses all of the nuanced meaning of the Hebrew word. Khesed is a type of affection you have for someone, but it’s more than affection. It’s also a loyal commitment to be generous to that person for the long run. Can you think of an English word that captures that meaning? Bible translators have been trying to figure it out for generations. And you can see this by how many different translations have been done for this important Hebrew word.

The most famous use of khesed is in Exodus 34:6, where God calls himself “compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in khesed and faithfulness.” Take a look at the different translations of khesed in this verse.

The Wycliff Bible (late 1300s) translates khesed as “steadfast love.”
A modern translation, the ESV, uses this same phrase.

The King James Bible (early 1600s) translates khesed as “goodness.” The Geneva Bible, from the same time period, uses this same word.

Young’s Literal Translation (1862) translates khesed as “kindness.”

The World English Bible (1901) uses two words in their translation, “loving kindness.”

The NASB (1960s) translates khesed as “faithfulness.”

The NIV (1978) simply translates khesed as “love.”

Notice the different choices over generations: steadfast love, goodness, kindness, loving kindness, faithfulness, love. When we come across such a large discrepancy in translations, this tells us that the Hebrew word is unique and can’t quite be captured with any one word.

At BibleProject, we use our own translation of khesed, loyal love.

Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loyal love and faithfulness.

Exodus 34:6

Loyal Love

Khesed is a kind of love you can depend on. When we long for love, what we are really longing for is khesed. Affection can come and go, and it doesn’t satisfy our innate need to be loved without condition. What we really want is a loyal affection not driven by strict or begrudging obligation but by deep compassion.

When we treat someone as a close friend or family member, doing what is necessary to ensure their well-being and the health of the relationship, we can call that an act of khesed. While the action may be an obligation or duty, khesed also refers to the emotional motivation of love that drives overabundant expressions of generosity and care.

Khesed assumes a pre-existing relationship and refers to actions that demonstrate loyalty to that relationship—to preserve and protect it and allow it to flourish. Khesed does not refer to any one specific type of action. Rather, khesed describes a posture in the relationship that can be expressed through many different acts.

In the Bible, we see humans show khesed to one another. Here are a few key examples. Jacob asks his sons to show khesed by promising to bury him in his homeland, which would require a pilgrimage out of Egypt (Genesis 47:29). Ruth, an immigrant, loses her husband and children but decides to stay committed to her mother-in-law, which is described as an act of khesed (Ruth 1:8; 3:10).

God's Loyal Love

While we see these acts of khesed throughout the Bible, the one who shows the most khesed is God. The Bible introduces us to a God who has a generous commitment to his human partners. Throughout the story of the Bible, humans continually show how faithless, selfish, and self-sabotaging they are, but the Bible makes clear how enduring God’s khesed is for us.

In the story of the Bible, God’s khesed is focused on one family, the family of Abraham. God pours his khesed out on them even when they don’t deserve it. He does this because he wants them to become the type of people who can take God’s khesed to all nations.

God shows khesed to Abraham’s family time and again. Jacob is a great example of God’s loyalty to this family. Jacob lies and cheats and steals, yet God upholds his covenant to Jacob. And Jacob recognizes how unworthy he is of that treatment.

I am unworthy of all the khesed and of all the faithfulness which you have shown to your servant.

Genesis 32:10

The entire nation of Israel consistently rebels against God, despite his continued deliverance and forgiveness. Eventually, they are made to wander in the wilderness as a result of not trusting God, but God, in his khesed, is moved to rescue them.

In your khesed you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.

Exodus 15:10

Please forgive the guilt of this people in accordance with the greatness of your khesed, just as you also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.

Numbers 14:19

Despite their rebellion God forgives them, which is called an act of khesed. Later, the entire nation of Israel rebels against God again, and they are exiled to Babylon. During these dark times, Israel’s prophets look at God’s past acts of khesed as the basis for hope of future khesed and their rescue from exile.

Awake, Lord!
Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself!
Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
And forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
Our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
Rescue us because of your unfailing khesed.

Psalm 44:23-26

God continues to show abundant khesed to Israel because through them, he will show his khesed to all the nations. This leads us to Jesus. He came to fulfill God’s relationship with Israel by being the faithful human who lives every day in the security of God’s khesed and succeeds in showing khesed back to God. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s khesed. God’s relentless, loyal love arrives in Jesus, and his affection for us drives him to give us the ultimate act of loyal love in his life, death, and resurrection.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his khesed endures forever.

Psalm 118:1
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