The terms hesed (faithfulness or loving-kindness) and berith (covenant) are related but they are not identical in meaning. “Hesed is the result of a berith relationship” (21) As stated before, God’s uniqueness is because he is a covenant making God. The three passages (Deuteronomy 7:9; 1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chronicles 6:14) that combine the concepts of faithfulness and covenant are controlled by the word translated keeping. Our English is weaker than the Hebrew that carries the idea of guarding or protecting (22) “The underlying root meaning is ‘to pay careful attention to.’ Such regard can be focused on oneself, on others over whom one has charge, or on the expressed or implicit will of one’s superior(s), be it king or deity” (23) This expression places a high value on both the covenant and his faithfulness. They are his valuable character that must be protected. He carefully guards the covenant we have just explored. He protects his faithful character with the same fervor.
Hesed can also denote the idea of “obey” such as keep a command. “This verb is the second most common way to represent obeying” (24) I think this is significant in light of what we said about God’s self-limitation in covenant. Because God has made a covenant, he must “obey” in the sense of keeping it as if commanded by a greater power. In other words, God is bound by his faithfulness. He must obey his will to self-limit in the covenant. In this way, God protects his covenant by his faithfulness.
How does he protect these characteristics? His word is his bond and security. Since there is none greater, he swore by his own word to keep his covenant (Hebrews 6:13). In the Old Testament, God swore an oath to confirm his covenants. So it is in the New Testament (Luke 1:73; Hebrews 6:13; Acts 2:30). To say “God swears an oath” is the same as saying “God makes promises.” The Hebrews understood that the oath could be negative, as in a divine oath such as God’s curse on the disobedient Israelites in the wilderness (Hebrews 3:11, 18; 4:3; compare Numbers 14:21–23; Deuteronomy 1:34) (25)
When loving-kindness and covenant are used in combination like this, there is a principle of mutuality involved. Each party involved in the covenant responds to the other in faithfulness. Micah 6:8 exemplifies this with God’s longing for mutuality in the response of love. The love is something that is directed back to God (26) The mutuality of hesed is evidenced as well in Hosea 7:18 with God’s willingness to forgive. It is reciprocal with the intent of mutual prosperity (in this case, the prosperity is spiritual but in others it can be physical or monetary). There are six identifiable forms of mutuality in the ideal of hesed. These can be summarized as part of a mutual relationship in regard to rights and duties. Hesed is restricted to those in the relationship and corresponds to the concept of faithfulness. Since it can be confirmed by an oath, it constitutes the essences of a covenant. Specifically, in Hosea, the mutual prosperity of hesed is evident is God’s provision (2:10f.), his peace and rest (2:20), help (12:10), and benevolence (11:3-4, 3:1) (27)
Mutual respect and love are at the center of Hosea’s message when he writes, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). Twice (9:13, 12:7) Matthew quotes Hosea in his reaction to the Pharisees. In summary regarding hesed, Hosea uses the word six times. Four of the six times (2:19, 6:6, 10:12, 12:6) are in reference to God’s love for his people. The other two (4:1, 6:4) are used negatively of Israel. Additionally, Hosea is the first of the prophets to relate this hesed of God on the basis of their relationship.
The reason that so much time has been spent on this subject is to impress on you that these same principles must control our thinking about the new covenant. I so often hear people refer to the covenant of grace as unconditional. I fear that this is used as a license to be less than faithful to the covenant. It is true that it is absolute from the perspective of God’s faithfulness. “That is, the decision of God to reveal himself within the confines of the covenant was neither subject to reconsideration nor vulnerable to abrogation” (28) However, this does not relinquish our responsibilities as covenant members to shirk the responsibilities of the covenant. More will be said about this in the chapter on Kingdom Life. To close this section, consider Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). The unity expressed in this verse is the hesed relationship (mutuality) that grows out of the covenant in which we all partake.
Hesed is a vital part of the covenant that is essential in regard to the unity of the elect “in Christ.” As we will discover in the chapter on Participation through Fellowship, there is a commonality we share that is the basis of unity. Understanding the mutuality of the covenant preserves the unity (Ephesians 4:1-3). Before we consider this on the group level, we need to engage this principle on the individual level—Christ in you!
(1) M. Lattke, “kenoō,’ Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 282.
(2) logizomai, reckon, think, credit (J. Eichler, “Λογίζομαι,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Lothar Coenen, Erich Beyreuther, and Hans Bietenhard, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 822.). Think on these things is a more accurate understanding of Paul intent.
(3) G. H.-Schötz, “Guard, Keep, Watch,” ed. Lothar Coenen, Erich Beyreuther, and Hans Bietenhard, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 133.
(4) Gerald L. Borchert, John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 122.
(5) A. T. Robertson, A Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament, for Students Familiar with the Elements of Greek (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908), 163. Further, “Here the subjunctive is naturally used in the condition as the more vivid of the two modes of doubtful assertion. ean is used in the condition … The conclusion most naturally has the future indicative, but that is not necessary. There is considerable variety in the form of the conclusion. In point of fact any tense of the indicative, subjunctive, or imperative may be here employed.”
(6) Daniel L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 191.
(7) Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 91–92.
(8) This is the better understanding of the phrase regarding purification (Schreiner, 2003: 91-92).
* This page is an excerpt from is my book Non-Negotiable: Focusing on the Essentials of the Faith. The book goes into more detail on many of these issues.
Last update: 9 September 2015
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