Old Testament Word Studies
"Loyal Love, Lovingkindness"
One of the most important words in the Bible, and certainly in the Book of Psalms, is the word khesed, most often translated as "lovingkindness." Not only is the word descriptive of a divine attribute, but it is also the key word for covenant relationships, whether between God and people, or between people themselves. It is important to have a good grasp of this word because the word will be found in so many passages of the Old Testament.
The dictionaries are in general agreement over the meaning of this word. BDB says it means "goodness, kindness." It then breaks this down to its meanings for people, "mercy, affection, lovely appearance," and then to its meanings for God, "lovingkindness, deeds of mercy, deeds of kindness" (the latter two being in the plural).
KBL says the word means "the mutual liability of those who are relatives, friends, master and servant, or belonging together in any other way, the solidarity, joint liability." The dictionary then specifies that the word can describe single proofs of that solidarity.
The root is found only in Aramaic (including later Syriac) and Hebrew. It is used in later Hebrew (MH) where it clearly parallels the usage of Biblical Hebrew. Jastrow defines the word for this later Rabbinic use as "grace, kindness, love, charity," and in the plural as "acts of kindness." Syriac exhibits meanings closely related to that of Biblical Hebrew as might be expected.
Some have suggested that the Hebrew word is cognate to Arabic khashada (see Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, pp. 106, 7). Ordinarily we would expect that the Arabic letter sh should correspond to the Hebrew letter sin and not to the samek. But the interchange of sibilants is not always strictly adhered to, and so this is not an insurmountable barrier by itself. The Arabic word khashada means "congregate, collect together" and then "gather together to help." There may be a connection here based on the final meaning, but it is not a very close correspondence of meanings.
There is another word khesed which has meanings such as "jeer, scoff, shame," and "pest." In Leviticus 20:17 and Proverbs 14:34, for example, we have the sense of "shame, reproach." An Arabic word of the same letters, meaning "envy," may be related to this word. Some have suggested that there was one Semitic root behind all these uses, including "lovingkindness," meaning "eager zeal, desire," but that seems unlikely. It is probable that we are dealing with two separate roots here--homonyms. So this study will only focus on the words that have to do with loyal love.
BDB lists the verb khasad, "to be good, kind," but it only has a couple of occurrences. There is an adjective, though, that is used extensively--khasid, meaning "kind, pious." It will be used frequently as a substantive, referring to the saints as "pious" or "godly." It may be a passive idea, that those so named received God's khesed, and therefore are the khasid.
There is a feminine noun khasidah, "stork," so named because of its kind and affectionate care for its young (see Ps. 104:17). We have an interesting illustration for our word in the usage of this word. In Job 39:13-15 the LORD compares the ostrich to the stork (or to "love" as some versions translate the word). The ostrich is the opposite of the stork, or love (khasidah), for it abandons its young to the sand for the foot to crush or the predator to devour. It does not have "loyal love" for its own. So by contrast the "stork" and "loyal love" are essentially synonymous.
Later we also have the name Khasidic and Khasidim being used for the ultra-orthodox Jews who have become numerous in the modern state of Israel.
According to Nelson Glueck (and others before him), the word khesed does not refer to a spontaneous, unmotivated kindness, but to a kind of behavior that arises from a relationship which has rights and obligations (marriage, the household, the government; see KBL's definition again). When the word is used with God, then, the relationship is the covenant. In short, one would say that the word is based on a covenant relationship and is characterized by lovingkindness for the members of the covenant and faithfulness to the covenant. Translations such as "loyal love" or "covenant faithful love," although a bit wordy, are more precise than "kindness."
This idea must not be forced into every context where the word occurs. The word khesed by nature belongs with relationships and community; the emphasis on covenant relationships must be drawn from the contexts in which the word is used. There are passages where no such emphasis is present, and so if the meaning is derived from the context it will be a little more general.
The word khesed occurs 245 times in the Bible: 127 times in the Psalms, 12 times in 2 Samuel, 11 times in Genesis, 10 in Proverbs and 2 Chronicles, 8 in Isaiah, 6 in Hosea and Jeremiah, and then a few times in a number of other books. The distribution corresponds generally with the categories of meanings, i.e., the religious uses more frequently in Psalms and Prophets, but the non-religious uses more in the narratives. The following are workable categories for the uses:
1. Lovely Appearance
There is only one passage that requires this meaning. Isaiah 40:6 says, "All flesh is grass, and all its beauty (khasdo) is like the flower of the field." Some have suggested the translation should be "its constancy" to draw upon the idea of faithfulness in the word's uses.
Others suggest a scribal error has occurred, and so propose something like hodo, "its beauty," for the verse. However, the use of khesed here is plausible; it is comparable to the biblical use of "grace" for "gracefulness."
2. General Kindness, Favors
There are passages where no special relationship exists between the people, or serves as a motivation for the kindness, other than an ordinary interpersonal relationship. One could still say that the choice of this word in such passages indicates the kind of love or favor that is desired, one that would be true of covenant loyal love.
The word is used in this way in Genesis 40:14 when Joseph asks the cup-bearer and the baker, "please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh." Joseph may have thought they would do this because he had established a unique relationship with them, but there is no hint in the passage of that. Another passage is Joshua 2:12 in which Rahab explains that she wants the spies to deal kindly with her because she has dealt kindly with them by hiding them--one favor should lead to another in return. This same sense is then used by the spies in verse 14. Another passage, 1 Kings 20:31, refers to the kings of Israel as "merciful kings," referring to their treating people with kindness, especially those who are meek and poor. And Proverbs 11:17 refers to "a man who is kind." So these are references to a general kindness, even though the kind acts involved probably resembled the kind of acts that would be displayed in covenant relationships.
3. Kindness Based on a Relationship
There are a few passages that may have in mind a general kindness, but there is in each of them an established relationship. According to Genesis 20:13 Abraham had said to his wife, "This is the kindness you must do me: at every place we come, say of me, 'He is my brother'." Here loyalty to the marriage covenant may be part of the kindness to be shown. In Genesis 24:49 the servant appeals to Laban and Bethuel to show kindness and faithfulness to his master and give a reply. Again, these are relatives, so the kindness may be more than a general favor. It is in this sense that the word is used throughout the Book of Ruth. For example, Ruth displayed loyal love to the family into which she has married by claiming Boaz as her kinsman redeemer (Ruth 3:10).
4. Faithful Covenant Love
It is in the passages that describe the works of God that we find most of the uses in this category. God demonstrates his faithful love to his people by all that he does for them, and sometime that is in spite of their unfaithfulness to the covenant.
Deuteronomy 7:9 and 12 show that it is God's steadfast love that is the basis and means of his keeping the covenant promises. Verse 12 promises, "The LORD your God will keep you with the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to the prophets." This same steadfast love is promised to David's descendants in the making of the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:15). And Solomon, in his great prayer of dedication, says that there is no one like the LORD "keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to his servants" (1 Kings 8:23). And so the kind acts of God toward his people are viewed as part of the covenant relationship, God being loyal to his covenant because he loves his people.
In the Bible we often find the word for "truth," 'emet, joined with the word khesed. In passages where the covenant relationship is connected, these two words should form a hendiadys (two words joined with a conjunction, but one serves as the modifier of the other): "loyal love and truth" would mean "faithful loyal love" (see the word study of 'aman, from which the word "truth" is derived).
God's "loyal love" brings redemption and guidance to his people. Exodus 15:13 records the words of Moses extolling the LORD for leading and redeeming his people at the Exodus by his steadfast love. Accordingly, in times of war or famine (Ps. 33), the people of God pray for the outworking of God's loyal love (v. 22).
God's "loyal love" preserves the life of his people, even in discipline. So the psalmist can pray at such times for the LORD to save his life because of his steadfast love (Ps. 6:4).
God's "loyal love" brings forgiveness of sins. David's appeal for forgiveness is based on this: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love" (Ps. 51:1).
God's "loyal love" brings restoration to the physical and spiritual life of his people. Psalm 109:21-26 demonstrates this, laying out the need before praying for God to deliver by his steadfast love.
Perhaps one of the best samples to use is Psalm 23:6. The verse is the summary of the psalm, stating "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life." This is the traditional translation. David knows that God's "good loyal love" (taking the two words as a hendiadys) will never leave him. The various descriptions of God's acts of kindness form verses 1-5 of the psalm.
Accordingly, we find khesed in contexts that list various attributes of God. For example, Psalm 36:5 exclaims that God's loyal love extends to the heavens, but it is in the context of attributes that includes "faithfulness," "righteousness" and "judgments." In Psalm 36 khesed is the focus of the meditation, and therefore the subject of the petition in verse 10.
When this attribute is used for God, it is often qualified by various adjectives and expressions. To Jonah, God's loyal love is abundant (Jon. 4:2). In Exodus the loyal love is great (Exod. 34:7). In Psalm 63 it is good (v. 4). And in Psalm 118 it is everlasting (vv. 1,2). In fact, Psalm 118 uses an expression of praise that is common enough to be a fixed part of the praise of Israel: "O give thanks ('yadah) to the LORD for he is good; for his loyal love endures forever." Psalm 118 is a praise to God for his deliverance from the enemy, a deliverance that demonstrated that he is faithful to his covenant promises.
5. Piety, Faithful Covenant Acts
This category concerns the response of the people of God to their covenant God. Those who are members of the covenant are expected to show faithful loyal love to God as well as to other members of the covenant. This explains a number of the uses of the word in the Book of Ruth, for all the participants of the family, and of the covenant people, show kindness or loyal love to each other in the things they do.
But here we have other passages that speak to this issue directly. The word of the LORD through Hosea criticizes the people because their khesed was fleeting (Hos. 6:4), but then calls on them to live out their covenant duties because he, the LORD, delights in piety. Isaiah uses this sense of the word when he describes the truly pious or faithful people; in Isaiah 57:1 he parallels our word with the word "the righteous," so we know he has in mind people who are faithful members of the covenant. In the passage he says that they die in the war, and no one misses them--but they lie down in peace. The contrast at the end of the chapter is that there is no peace for the wicked--if they die in the war, their troubles begin.
Linked to this category of piety, love for God, faithful covenant acts, is the related word khasid, which usually is translated "the pious" or "the godly."
Two words are commonly connected with khesed and therefore have some overlap in meaning. One is the word "truth, faithfulness" ('emet 'aman; see the word study for this). This word only picks up the emphasis on faithfulness, not love.There is also the rakham (also, see the word study for this), "tender mercy, compassion" and even "brotherly love." It picks up the idea of love and compassion, but not the emphasis on the covenant and on faithfulness. There is also a general word for "love," 'ahab (see the word study for this as well); it carries all the connotations of "love" as well as the specific idea of choosing (whereas hating is rejecting).
The LXX (the common designation for the old Greek translations of the Bible, generally referred to as the Septuagint) usually translates khesed with eleos, "mercy, kindness," which is a rather general translation focusing more on the result or benefit of the faithful love of the Lord. For the word khasid it generally uses hosios, "piety."
Modern English translations have been using "steadfast love" or "loyal love" more frequently in line with Glueck's work. But Bibles still will use "lovingkindness," a very general idea, which fits some passages well but does not do justice to most of the religious passages. "Kindness" by itself is workable in a few passages, but usually there is more of an emphasis on the love and loyalty involved in the kind acts.
There is little more to be said on the meaning and use of this word. Bible expositors as well as careful readers will want to be well-versed in the meaning of the word and its use, so that as they study the text they can see the significance of the chosen expression. For example, when David prayed for God to be merciful to him according to his loyal love, David was basing his appeal on the attribute of God that says God loves his people and is faithful to them, even when they are unfaithful. If God has made a covenant with us by his love, then he is faithful to forgive us and to cleanse us from all sin when we confess. And, throughout the psalms, there are few words that provide more reason for praise than khesed, the "loyal love" of God.