Q&A: What is the real meaning of the Hebrew word “hesed” in the Bible?


An excellent question, because the agonizing and linguistic contortions surrounding this word among non-Hebrew speakers have always puzzled me.

The traditional translation—lovingkindness—is totally inapt on several grounds: it’s a made-up word, cloyingly sentimental, semantically wrong, and rhythmically horrible, wreaking havoc on the meter of any verse in which it is present.

In fact, it’s my single greatest pet peeve with the King James translation (which in most other respects I admire). I suspect it was thought up by the translators after returning from the pub, where everyone had bought their round (“I know! We’ll call it “lovingkindness”! <hic!>”
“Yessh! That’s it! I love you, Jeremy! <hic!>” [wraps arm around him]
“You’re too kind…” [hilarious laughter by all present])

There is nothing loving or kind about the Hebrew ḥesed—it is a considered, almost cerebral act of compassion bestowed by someone in authority on a person or a group of people whom they like and wish to encourage. It is akin to mercy, when the recipient has done nothing wrong. It is perfectly encapsulated in the word grace, as in John Bradford’s But for the grace of God there go I.

Thus, Psalms 17:7 should read: Shew thy marvellous grace, O thou that saveest by thy right hand […]

Psalms 36:7: How excellent is thy grace, O God!

Jeremiah 16:5: […] for I have taken away my peace from this people, saith the Lord, even grace and mercies.

Hosea 2:19: […] I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in grace, and in mercies.

Another option—depending on the context, and meter—is favour, e.g.:

Psalms 40:11: Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O Lord: let thy favour and thy truth continually preserve me

Psalms 48:9: We have thought of thy favour, O God, in the midst of thy temple

If we could fix all translations accordingly, we would be doing future generations a big ḥesed.

2 thoughts on “Q&A: What is the real meaning of the Hebrew word “hesed” in the Bible?

  1. For what it’s worth, these are the glosses I have used in the first 535 chapters I have read in the Hebrew TNK: covenant mercy(1), covenant-merciful-kindness(1 – talk about metric lunacy!), kindly(1), kindness(21), kindnesses(2), loving-kindness(126), mercies(2), mercy(132), show kind(2), showing mercy(1), xesed(1) – a name 1 Chr 3:20), stork (3)

    I was tempted to remove l-k and use mercy only. Still may do that… But I would not use grace or favour since that would restrict me unnecessarily with חנן (grace, supplication) and רצה (favour, acceptance).

    The KJV has some very serious problems. Most notably is its obsession with punishment, a word I have never had to use in my English reading (and never will). punish/punishment is in the KJV Bible for no less than 6 different Hebrew stems.
    יסר bewilder, chasten, mentor, tutored, warn
    נכה strike
    עדה assembly, deck, give testimony, menstrual
    ענשׁ amerced, fine
    פקד conscript, entrust, visit, office, precepts
    רעע evil

    Unfortunately the KJV is so influential that this poetic work cannot be removed from the unimaginative mind without a lot of work.

    The question of love or kind is somewhat theological. What is the character of the Most High as perceived by adherents. I think it is impossible to exclude religion from our humanity. The question is what will our religion be? Kind, demanding, fatalistic, forceful, ignored when convenient, punishing, or even evil – such as were the crusades and the inquisition and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

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