Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
6 Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
7 In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; (Ps. 86:4-7, 10-13)
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
2 I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
4 ‘I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.’”
14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. (Ps. 89:1-4, 14)
The sixteenth century poet-monk, St. John of the Cross wrote, “Any spirituality that would fain walk in sweetness and with ease, and flees from the imitation of Christ is worthless” (quoted in Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cowley, 1990. 179). What he means is that our spirituality, our lives as people of God are to be marked, ultimately not by comfort, but by the imitation of Christ (See Eph. 5:1). We are to be imitators of God, people who love as Christ has loved us; people who take the more difficult way of Jesus (Matt. 7:13-14) which is the way of imitation of the love of God.
So what is that love of God demonstrated in Christ like.
“The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and compassionate slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousands” (Ex. 34:6-7a). This reflection is on that abundant love and faithfulness of God.
The Hebrew terms in question in Exodus are hesed and aman (the root word from which we get “amen”).
Few words in the OT are as vital to understanding what’s it about as the Hebrew hesed. It doesn’t come over to English the way it should. “Love” just doesn’t do this little word justice. The English language is kind of boorish and crude. Translators will try to capture it with something like “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness”. Both try to capture the sense that hesed is more than the way we use the English word love. I say I love a good steak. I say I love coffee. I say I love my favourite pair of jeans. I say I love my kids and my wife. I say God loves me. Love hardly adds up. Hesed in the OT is almost exclusive something God does. Only a few human relationships are described with this word; for example the love of Ruth and Naomi, the love of David and Jonathan, and the kindness and care shown by David to Mephibosheth (Jonathan’s son). The rest of the time human love is depicted with the more generic word translated as love ahab. Even in the command “love (ahab) the LORD your God” we are not specifically called in that command to hesed for God. He loves us in a way which is often beyond our abilities. Our finiteness limits our ability to be faithful and constantly “in tune” with his love. He does what we generally can’t.
Hesed is a call to faithful, ongoing, self-giving, sacrificial, covenantal love. It is the love that says no matter what you do, I am committed to you. Rabbi Nathan taught that the world was built on God’s hesed (Abot. R. Nat. 4). And the Babylonian Talmud says “Torah begins with deeds of loving kindness [hesed] and ends with deeds of loving kindness” (b. Sotah 14a). “the greatness of his hesed consists in his refusal, even in the face of rejection, to give up on his people, to set aside the responsibility he took upon himself” (Sakenfeld, The Meaning of Hesed, 120, quoted in Michael Knowles, The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2012, 140).
Hesed is the love of God which is demonstrated in covenant. God’s covenant is like a marriage. Human marriage, biblically understood, is a covenant relationship. It says this is how I will relate to you. It isn’t a contract saying I’ll do these things and share my stuff with you. It says I am your spouse, your partner, your helper. Contracts define an exchange of goods and services, but a covenant defines the nature of relationship. We don’t contract with God- ok I’ll tithe, and pray, and read my bible and try not to swear and you let me into heaven. Covenant says I am committed to you. I am faithful to you. I will be to you and for you what I have promised to. Even if one party is unfaithful, covenant binds the other to remain faithful. In a contract, if one party doesn’t fulfil their side, the other can be freed from their side. But God has said, even when you break covenant, I will not.
“His steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 136). More literally, “His hesed is forever”. It just is. It’s there, it’s constant, it’s not going away. His loving disposition towards creation is a guarantee. There aren’t conditions- no ifs with his love. Even if things go badly, God does not remove his love completely. When Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by the Babylonians, the people of Judah were forced to ponder what had happened. It seemed God was either unable to deliver Jerusalem or he deliberately allowed this. It seemed that God had actually broken faith. But the author of Lamentations, who for several chapters laments what has happened and say clearly the Lord is punishing Jerusalem for her sins, but, in spite of the despair of the situation, the poet has hope because,
Even in the midst of suffering and wrath, God’s love and mercy are still present. God did not abandon Jerusalem or neglect his covenant. He allowed for a time of consequence and correction, but preserved his people. He continued to remain the God of Israel. His people were still his people. He did not abandon his promise to them.
The prophet Isaiah in delivering a warning against Judah also stops to worship God;
Lord, you are my God;
I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness [Hebrew emunah omen literally faithful faithfulness]
you have done wonderful things,
things planned long ago. (Isa. 25:1)
God is faithfully faithful. His hesed is consistent, neverending. “His hesed endures forever”. He is faithfully loving. He is lovingly faithfully. As we read in Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jer. 31:3) Or as the Psalmist sings,
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. (Ps. 89:1-2)
The word faithfulness here can also be translated as truth. God’s faithfulness is rooted in his promise. His promise is true. His faithfulness is evidenced in the faithful unfolding of his promises. God has proven himself faithful and loving to his people in the remaining faithful to his covenant, and then, to make a New Covenant by which he provides the means to become the righteousness he desires for us through Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). As the Jerusalem Talmud says, “Kindness [hesed] is Yours, O Master, because You repay everyone according to his deeds, and if he has none, You give him from Yours.” (y. Peah 1:1, quoted in Knowles, The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name, 146). He not only keeps his promise, but makes a way for us to fulfill our side of the covenant. We live through Christ who is the one who live in perfect covenant union with God.
We are told YHWH is “maintaining/keeping steadfast love to the thousands”. God keeps love to the thousands. His inclination to show love and grace is to thousands. We are told he punishes to the third and fourth.
The Midrash states that this means that God’s inclination to love and be merciful is at least 500 times greater than his inclination to punish. (Tanh. Exodus 16:4ff. His love extends to thousands [i.e. at least 2000] and his wrath is to the third and fourth thus, the inclination to hesed is at least 500x more than his inclination to anger and punishment. See Knowles, The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name, 140-148).
Again the Rabbis tell us,
R. Eliezer, son of R. Yosé the Galilean, says, ‘Even if 999 angels argue against a person, and a single angel argues in his favor, the Holy One, blessed be he, still inclines the scales in his favor.’ And that is not the end of the matter… even if 999 aspects of the argument of that single angel argue against a man, but a single aspect of his case of that single angel argues in favor, the Holy One, blessed be he, still inclines the scales in favor of the accused.’ (y. Qidd. 1:9; cf. b. Shabb. 32a)
In other words God’s love inclines him to always be for us not against us. He is faithful to his creation because he said he would be, because he loves his people, and because it is his.
But, we aren’t great at faithfulness. We’re just not. We’re kind of… fickle.
The Old Testament repeatedly uses the image of God as a faithful husband and his people as the adulterer. We cheat on God. One of those prominent is the prophet Hosea. He knew a thing or two about faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Hosea 6:6 declares “I desire hesed not sacrifice.” God shows hesed and is not looking for religious observance as the appropriate response, but a response of loving kindness in response to his loving kindness.
God calls us back, over and over, and calls us to be transformed into the image of the Son. To become like Christ, who demonstrates the highest level of hesed and faithfulness. In Adam all of humanity was thrown into death. Matt Redmond writes, “Though Adam dove headlong into death itself, the God-Man dove in after us.” (The God of the Mundane, Kalos Press, 2012, 31). That’s what it means to be abundant in love and faithfulness- that death will not stop God from making us his people.
So what does it mean for us to then imitate that abundance?
Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name. (Ps. 86:11)
God assists us in our attempt to imitate him. He teaches us his way. By being with him and truly basking in the love which God lavishes on us we learn the meaning of hesed. We learn the meaning of faithfulness. Imitation requires a constant encounter. It’s easier to imitate someone you know closely. Hesed by its very nature draws us into deeper relationship. It beckons us to remain close to him.
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:4-5)
To abide in Christ is to be near him, reading the Scriptures, praying, letting the way he lived and spoke penetrate into you. Don’t just read the words on the page like an instruction manual, but look at the words which point you to a person who wants to interact and mold you into something new.
God’s love is abundant. His faithfulness is abundant. There is an overflowing of it. Our challenge in our lives full of distractions and demands of daily life is to find ways to abide in Christ’s love as we go. Can the grocery store be a place where Christ’s love is real? Can Christ be present when you vacuum or do the dishes? Can his grace be present with you outside the “Holy things” of worship, bible study, or your personal devotional time? His love is forever. When you’re in prayer, or in the dentist’s chair.
God’s love is steadfast. It is relational. It abounds and abides. Our challenge is to let that sink in. Just accepting that type of love is difficult for a lot of us. It’s hard to imagine the steadfast love of God when we realize we’ve made bad choices. When we’ve stumbled. But he is faithful, and he is for us as he always has been. His grace is not contingent on your success.
When we let that sink in, when can freely abide in Christ. We can allow his life to affect our lives. We can let Jesus Christ live in us. We can be imitators of God.