I grew up between two dogs. On the one side, our neighbor’s golden retriever would bound across the yards to come play nearly every day. At the time, I weighed about the same as she did, which made her love-filled-leaps somewhat terrifying. But nothing compared to the dog that lived on the other side. The muscle-bound Rottweiler spent her days chained to the dilapidated chicken coop she called home.
Any time we played in the backyard, we’d dread the creak of the rusted springs she used as a bed. She’d stand at the end of her leash and dare us to let a ball fly into her territory. Bits of rubber and flakes of foam lay dismembered outside her door—a living promise that anything we let wander her way would meet its maker.
One day, my favorite Nerf football found itself flying toward the dark portal to the dog’s domain and I couldn’t stop it—being, naturally, the one who’d thrown it. I listened for the screeching springs but the sound never came, so I recruited my dad’s help in retrieving my precious football.
I thought he’d make it, too, but as he straightened from picking up the ball, the giant animal launched herself from the coop and latched onto the other end of the football. With a growl she whipped her head back and forth trying to get my dad to surrender the poor thing to its inevitable doom. My dad, on the other hand, refused to let go. But shake and yank as he might, he couldn’t dislodge the dog.
Eventually, it was the football itself that threw in the towel, and it parted neatly in the middle. One half remained clenched in the Rottweiler’s teeth, and the other half returned to me. I couldn’t have told you then that, sitting in my hand, lay one of the most important object lessons I could learn about God’s love for his people.
The Hebrew word “hesed” gets a lot of press in devotionals or sermons or Bible studies. In our English Bibles, it’s translated in a dozen different ways, such as “mercy” or “lovingkindness” or “loyal love.” But any translation will struggle to capture the full landscape that the word “hesed” wants to paint. Sure, loyalty might form the mountains and mercy the waves at the shore, but taken together, it morphs into the image of a dog latched onto a ball refusing to let go.
Genesis introduces the word in a “you do for family” sense. When Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24), the servant uses the phrase over and over as a petition to both God and Abraham’s relatives. Because of the family’s relationship, they should show “love” to Abraham and hopefully find a wife for Isaac. And because God shows the same do-for-family kind of love toward Abraham, the servant hopes God will grant him success.
But the key concept in the use of hesed is the relationship that already exists. Hesed love isn’t the foundation of the relationship—it’s the result. Because a commitment (either by blood or by covenant as we’ll see later in Israel’s story) is in place, the parties show hesed to each other.
The word takes on new hues, however, when God enters into a covenant relationship with Israel. Throughout the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God’s commitment toward Israel in light of the covenant is hesed:
“You have led in your [hesed] the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Ex. 15:13, ESV).
“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in [hesed], forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Num. 14:18, ESV).
“And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the [hesed] that he swore to your fathers. He will love you, bless you, and multiply you” (Deut. 7:12–13a).
The verse in Deuteronomy is particularly interesting, because it pairs two Hebrew words together that end up translated “love.” The ESV translates hesed as “steadfast love in verse 12, and then translates the more common word for love or affection—ahav—as simply “love” in the early part of verse 13.
It’s the context that’s so key for appreciating the depth of hesed here. In verse 12, the word follows immediately God’s promise to keep his covenant. It’s in the context of his covenant promises that he also promises to continue to show hesed to his people, Israel. The affection that we often refer to as love appears after that in verse 13, where God says he will love, bless, and multiply the people.
God’s hesed for his people will bind him to them throughout the torrid history of the nation. Like a Rottweiler that’s sunk it’s teeth into a football, God’s covenant promise refuses to let go. Israel certainly puts God’s hesed—his covenant-keeping love—to the test. From the time of the wandering in the wilderness to the period of the judges and on through the kings, Israel forever wanders from her covenant commitment to God.
It’s fully within God’s right to cut the people lose. Time after time, the break faith with him. But time after time, it’s his hesed that refuses to let go. God fiercely loves his people. He made a promise to keep them, protect them, and bless them. No matter how much the people fail, their rebellion simply isn’t strong enough to pry loose the loving teeth of a God who will not let go.
The prophet Jeremiah penned the book-long song of sorrow we call Lamentations after he watched Israel reap the destruction they sowed by consistently abandoning their God. And yet, it the middle of the ashes, he wrote this line: “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his [hesed]” (Lam. 3:31–32). In the end, God’s hesed refused to forever abandon his people.
When we talk about God’s love today, we tend to cover it in silks and pillows—God is love, we say, and he’s affectionate, kind, and compassionate. While all true, we sometimes miss the tenacity and ferociousness of God’s hesed for those who belong to him. For you and me.
That love doesn’t surrender to the whim of emotion or the disappointments of failure. It isn’t swayed by flattery or bent under the burden of pain. Like stone, the hesed love of God remains when everything else is ash. He simply won’t let go.
The task, then, that our God puts to us is to return that love. Hosea—another of the prophets writing in the midst of Israel’s failure—recorded God’s plea to his people: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to [hesed] and justice, and wait continually for your God” (Hos. 12:6). The same kind of fierce love that God has for us he asks us to return to him.
Hosea fully recognizes that it’s a difficult task. After all, we’re the ones who tend to stumble and fall in our relationship with the God of the universe. But with God’s help, he’s called us to faithfully love him back. Showing our own hesed love toward God means hanging onto our commitment to him even if the world is crumbling around us. Even when it means losing friends, making sacrifices at work, or reaching out to people we don’t like.
God will never let go of us, and we, in turn, can join him on the ride.