"Be Gracious, Show Favor"
The grace of God is, of course, one of the most important doctrines of the Bible; and the adjectival form of this word is one of the fundamental attributes of God. Of the several words for grace or mercy, the verb khanan, "to be gracious, show favor," along with its derivatives, is one of the most important for understanding what grace means.
The Hebrew dictionaries define this verb as "to show favor, be gracious" along with variations on these themes ("graciously provide" or "favor a person with"). The idea in all the cognate words is consistent, and so usage will give us the fine nuances of the word. The verb and related words occur in all the Semitic languages (except Ethiopic) with meanings similar to Hebrew. In Arabic the word means "yearn towards, incline towards, be merciful, compassionate." The Akkadian word means "to grant a privilege, do a favor, have mercy." Ugaritic, Aramaic and Phoenician all have the idea of Abe gracious, show favor." The word group is common in Semitic names as well.
I shall discuss the derivatives next before I survey usage because these forms will help with the understanding of the verb and the classifications of the verb will apply to the noun and adjective forms as well.
The most helpful derivative is the adverb khinnam (the ending -am being the adverbial ending on the root). This adverb means "gratuitously, without payment, free, for nothing." Several examples illustrate this usage. God challenged Satan concerning Job, "Have you considered my servant Job . . . A blameless and upright man . . . although you incite me against him to destroy him for no reason" (Job 2:3). Job did not deserve this; in fact, he deserved the opposite. Psalm 69:4 is similar: "Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head." Another example is Genesis 29:15, "Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing?" The idea here is "gratis, free, for nothing." It can also mean "for no purpose, in vain." Proverbs 1:17 says, "It is useless to spread a net in the eyes of any bird." The bird will fly away. The use of this adverb would indicate that the verb and the noun for "grace" indicate that the grace or favor is free, gratuitous, without a cause.
Another derivative is the noun khen (pronounced "kane") which means "grace, favor" and sometimes "elegance." In its normal use for "grace," the significance is that grace is unmerited or undeserved favor. Thus, in Genesis 6:8 when we read that Noah "found grace in the eyes of the LORD," it means that he too was a sinner but God in his grace saved him. Only after this announcement do we find Noah walking with the LORD and living a righteous life; Genesis 6:9 begins a new chapter in the life of this recipient of grace. Likewise Ruth found favor in the eyes of Boaz (Ruth 2:10). Under the Law Ruth should never have been accepted into the community of Israel--she was a Moabitess. But in the favor of Boaz, freely given to her, she was included.
The word is also used to describe the nature and appearance of a woman in Proverbs 31:30; the meaning of "gracious" parallels the word "beauty." This is an extension of the basic meaning of grace to the character.
There is the adjective khannun, "gracious," that is used often in a description of the character of God (see Exod. 34:6; Exod. 22:27, and other passages). The meaning of the word "grace" and "be gracious" are therefore presented as descriptions of the nature of God. He freely bestows favor on people.
The noun tekhinnah is "supplication." This is a common word for prayer, expressing the nature of the prayer as a plea for divine grace or favor.
Other nouns occur with the same meanings. And, of course, this verb is basic to a large number of names in the Bible: Khannah is Anna, the mother of Samuel; Khanan is Hanan, a Levitical name; Khanun, meaning something like "favored," is a common name of Jewish chiefs in the days of Nehemiah; Khananyahu is Hananiah, or in Greek Ananias, meaning "Yahweh has been gracious"; and of course names connected to "John" (Jack, Jan, etc) would have the same idea, "Yah is gracious" (Yokhanan). But these names offer no clarification of the meaning of the verb; on the contrary, the names will be better understood because of the meaning of the verb and its noun.
All of the categories of meaning will be very close because the basic idea of free or unmerited favor is at the heart of the word group. But the way these words are used will certainly show some refinements in application.
1. Unmerited grace for the forgiveness of sins
One of the most important uses of the word concerns the favor of forgiveness. The classic example is Psalm 51:1, where David prays, "Be gracious to me (khonneni), O God, according to your loyal love; according to your tender mercies blot out my transgressions." The context is a confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness; the basis for the request is the grace of God. What this indicates is that David did not have a leg to stand on, as it were. He could only appeal for God's grace to grant him forgiveness. He did not deserve forgiveness; in fact, he deserved the opposite--death. But God's grace is unmerited favor--that is true of all forgiveness of sin.
2. Unmerited grace in delivering people from their troubles
Close to the first category is this one that leads to deliverance. Because God is a gracious God, David prays, "Be gracious to me (khonneni), O LORD, for I am in distress" (Ps. 31:9). He was in trouble with his enemies and was appealing to God to deliver him. We have no word in the psalm that sin got him into the trouble; but the usage of the verb would indicate that he knew that God was not bound to do this, but because he freely bestows good things on people he will also get people out of trouble, even if they brought it on themselves. Here we may include all the uses of the noun, "supplication," for all prayer is an appeal for God's grace. Isaiah 30:19 says, "He will surely be gracious (khanon yakhneka) to you at the sound of your cry; he will answer you when he hears it." Throughout the psalms the verb Abe gracious" is linked with the request for God to hear (cf. 4:1; 27:7; 30:10). It is like obtaining an audience with the sovereign--in his good grace he will grant it, even though there is no reason binding him to do it.
The reverse of this is stated a few times in negative clauses. In Deuteronomy 7:2 God instructed the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites: "You shall make no covenant with them and show them no favor (welo' tekhonnem)." If favor is not shown, they would then receive the judgment they deserved.
3. Bestowing favor in tangible ways
There are passages where people explain that God has been gracious to them because they have been given things. There is no emphasis in these passages that prayer was a part of it; and there is no emphasis that it was undeserved, although that always is understood when this word is used. In Genesis 33:5 Jacob explained to Esau that all the children were those "whom God has graciously given" (khanan). Jacob knew that all his possessions were by God's grace, not by his own power or clever activities. Jacob probably knew very well that he did not deserve them.
The application of the verb in contexts dealing with blessings could also be formed in a prayer. Psalm 67:1 says, "May God be gracious to us (yekhonnenu) and bless us, and cause his face to shine upon us." Blessing in the Bible refers to any enrichment from God, spiritual or material. Anything we have is a free gift from God. Here too we see that the shining face of God is connected with grace. In the High Priestly blessing of Numbers 6:25, we read, "May the LORD cause his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you." If people understood that all God's gifts were by his unmerited favor, they would be more apt to praise and thank him, and to walk humbly before him.
This category works also with humans as the subject. In Proverbs 14:31 we read that "That the one who oppresses the poor reproaches his maker, but the one who is gracious (khonen) to the needy honors Him." The righteous are to be gracious to the needy, meaning meet their needs. This would be completely free of charge, undeserved, without ulterior motives--it would be a free gift of grace. This act would honor God because it would reflect more than anything else we do the nature of our gracious God. In a related sense, Job asks his friends to show him some pity, saying, "Be gracious to me (khonnuni), be gracious to me, O my friends, for the hand of God has struck me" (Job 19:21). Job wanted them to give him some kind treatment, but instead they were harsh in accusing him of bringing his own problems on himself. If God showed "grace" that way, none of us would be saved. He gives us grace even though we have caused all our troubles.
There are a number of words in the Old Testament that are in the same semantic field as "grace." One is the word "be good, kind" (khasad). It is best known by its derivative, "loyal love" (khesed). The word refers primarily to God's dealings with His people, and their dealings with each other. It comes close to the idea of grace, but does not stress the element of being unmerited, more of loyalty to the covenant. Another synonym is "tender mercy" (rakham). The word has the sense of "love, have compassion, show tender mercy"; it has the derivative words "womb" (the care for that which is totally helpless and dependent), and "brotherly love" (the feeling for someone as if he or she came from the same womb). This synonym is often used in parallel constructions with our word "grace," but it is not as broad in its meanings.
In the Greek Old Testament the word khanan is most often translated by the word eleeo, which means "be gracious, have pity on, show mercy to." Surprisingly, the Hebrew word is never translated by the Greek word charizomai, "to show grace or favor" to someone. But the derived noun "grace" is usually translated by its derivative, charis. The Greek translation also used oiktirmos, "pity, compassion."
In modern translations, "grace, favor" and "mercy" are all used, almost interchangeably. The expositor should not try to find the difference in these English words, but rather understand which category of the Hebrew word is intended and explain that. The American Heritage Dictionary traces the English "grace" to older words meaning "favorable, pleasing, thankful" (Latin gratus), and shows its link to other words like gratis, grateful, gratify, and the like.
The verb "be gracious" (khanan) and its noun "grace" (khen) are very consistent in the meaning of undeserved or unmerited favor. The different uses may not stress the idea of its being undeserved, but the implication is always there that grace is free.