No Hebrew Scripture word is used more to describe God’s character than the word chesed, which is translated multiple ways (e.g. loving kindness, loyalty, steadfast love). In my youth group days, we often sang, “The steadfast love of the lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning.” These lyrics are taken from Lamentations 3:22-23 and include the word chesed.
This word is especially important in describing God as a covenant partner. The covenant God makes with Israel depends not on Israel’s covenant loyalty, but on God’s. There is no exhausting the mercies of God. They are new every morning. You can put your trust in them.
But the demonstration of chesed is not only for God, but should characterize human relationships as well. To practice steadfast love is God’s way of creating a trustworthy community. I almost hesitate to use the word “love” here because we tend to associate that word with how we feel about others. Chesed is not something we feel, but something we do. We live mercifully, with loyalty, with the best interest of the other in mind.
A set of stories that many of us are familiar with that features chesed is David’s rise to the monarchy. You’ll remember that David is anointed as king by Samuel while Saul still occupies on the throne. While Saul seeks to destroy David, at several dramatic moments in the story David displays chesed to Saul. And of course, the drama surrounding David and Saul brings Saul’s son, Jonathan, into view. Jonathan acts toward David with chesed (1 Sam 20:8, 14) to save him from the violent intentions of his father. Later, after Saul and Jonathan have died, David shows chesed to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth by caring for him as his own (2 Sam 9:1, 3, 7). In both instances, Jonathan and David acted against their own personal interests for the sake of the other.
Beyond the major stories surrounding David, Saul, and Jonathan, there are several in this narrative arc that feature chesed and minor characters. Stories about David that include less-than-household biblical names like Hanun, Barzillai, and Hushai all turn on actions characterized by the narrator as chesed (cf. 2 Sam 10:2, 1 Kings 2, 2 Sam 16:17). Taken together these stories suggest that David’s unlikely ascent to the throne has been paved through actions of steadfast love or loyalty. In the chaotic circumstances of David’s life, chesed has created a trustworthy path. The reader senses that this is God’s work. God has been with David, but in the concrete actions of characters who have lived out steadfast love.
I like Katherine Sakenfeld’s definition of chesed. It is “faithfulness in action.” This is God’s way of being in the world–God’s way of demonstrating covenant faithfulness, and the way God’s people demonstrate they are living the way of God in the world.
So, as we consider how are work participates in God’s work for a trustworthy world, we would do well to reflect on occasions in our work when faithfulness in action is demonstrated. What things come to mind as evidence of chesed in your life?