The Hebrew word for “gracious” in Exodus 34:6 is “khanun,” which is related to the Hebrew noun “khen.” This word, “khen,” is often translated as “grace,” but it can also be translated with words like “delight,” “favor,” “charm,” or “beauty.” People with wise, eloquent, or physically beautiful qualities naturally attract khen. Read Proverbs 1:8-9, 22:11, and 31:30 in a few translations. What do you notice about how your Bible translates the word “khen”? Discuss the different ways khen is used in these examples.
Khen can also be used to communicate an act of generous favor. In these cases, the recipients of khen are usually undeserving or perceived as such, so translators use words like “mercy” or “plead” for khen or khanun. With this in mind, read Genesis 42:21, Esther 4:8, and Ruth 2:10 before discussing how khen works in these examples.
Let’s look at more ways khen is used in the Bible. When undeserving people cry out for God to be khanun or gracious (e.g. Psalm 4:1, Psalm 102:12-14), how does God consistently respond (e.g. Psalm 102:17-21, Isaiah 30:18-20)?
God’s consistent response of grace ultimately leads us to Jesus. So let’s turn to the New Testament, where the Greek word “kharis” is often translated as “grace.” Read John 1:14-17 aloud together in your group. How does Jesus fully embody God’s glorious grace?
When extraordinary gifts of grace are given, they cannot be experienced unless they are received. Read Ephesians 2:8-9 as well as 1 Peter 5:4-7. According to these passages, with what attitude do people receive God’s gift of kharis?
If you tried to describe what God is like, it could be difficult or daunting. But when the people who wrote the Bible pondered the mystery of God, they consistently described God’s character in this way: compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, overflowing with loyal love and faithfulness.1
We’re going to look at the second key word in this statement, “gracious.” The Hebrew word is khanun, which is related to the Hebrew noun khen. This word, khen, is often translated as “grace” or “favor.” And if you study how this word is used throughout the Bible, you’ll find a fascinating story.
A Gift Given in Delight [0:38-1:31]
One meaning of khen is “delightful” or “favorable.” In the Psalms, a skilled poet is said to have “lips of khen,”2 that is, he can craft beautiful words that bring delight. Or a dazzling piece of jewelry is an “ornament of khen.”3 It attracts attention and favor.
This is why khen is often the word used to describe a gift given with delight or favor. In these cases, khen could be translated as “grace.”
Like in the story of Esther, who approaches the king of Persia to ask that she and her people be spared from death. She calls this a “request for khen,”4 and because the king delights in Esther, he favors her and grants her wish.
So giving a gift of favor is khen because it’s motivated by delight. And the most extreme kind of khen is showing favor to someone who should get what they deserve not a generous gift.
Undeserved Favor [1:32-2:28]
Like Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau, ran away, and then after twenty years wants to come back and make things right. So he comes to Esau asking, “may I find khen in your eyes.”5 Jacob isn’t asking for what is fair but for favor. And surprisingly, that’s what Esau gives him. He chooses to delight in his brother Jacob and show him grace that he doesn’t deserve.
Now, khen requires a generous spirit, which people sometimes have. But in the Bible, the one who shows more khen than anyone else is God.
Like when God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and they quickly betray him by giving their allegiance to a golden idol as their god. But then Moses steps in and asks God to consider giving a gift that they don’t deserve. And God says yes by showing the ultimate act of khen—forgiveness and a promise to be with these people.6
A Gracious God [2:29-4:08]
This character trait of God is so reliable that over 40 times in the book of Psalms people cry out for God’s khen—when they’re sick, or in danger, or when the Israelites are in exile. And the biblical prophets, like Isaiah, looked back to God’s khen in the past and boldly declared that God will one day show khen to his people by delivering them, and all creation, from death and ruin.7
Now when we turn to the authors of the New Testament, they describe God’s khen with the Greek word kharis, which means “gracious gift.” Like when we’re introduced to Jesus in the Gospel of John, we’re told that Jesus is God’s glorious kharis become human,8 sent into a world of people trapped in darkness and death.
Because, according to the apostle Paul, we’re like the living dead. God has handed humanity over to the destructive consequences of our selfish decisions. But, Paul says, God is rich in mercy, and by his kharis he’s rescued us.9 He’s talking about how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are offered to us as a generous gift of life that is more powerful than death. And as with any gift, all one has to do is receive it.
So now you can see why the biblical authors talk so much about this description of God’s character throughout the Bible. When people are willing to own their failures and ask God for khen, he has a consistent and generous response. God gives the gift of himself, his life, and his love. And this is what it means that God is gracious.