The Power of one small word – hesed -Psalm 136
This essay is a transcript of a sermon I delivered at Grace Community United Methodist Church October 31, 2021. If you want one of the bookmarks mentioned, please send me a message and I will get one to you. I invite you to read Psalm 136 with some other people to experience the power of this small word.
Good morning church! I am so honored to again be speaking with you and sharing the word of God with you this morning. We are going to be continuing this series of looking at the Psalms by reading Psalm 136. Usually, a preacher reads the text at the beginning of the sermon. However, we will be reading the Psalm together liturgically at the end of my talk for this one.
With that, Psalm 136 is marked by the repeated use of one word. We will take some time to explore the riches of this word which permeates the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. It is a word that, in some ways undefinable. I should state here that I will be borrowing heavily from Michael Card for this talk. I highly recommend his book, Inexpressible, along with an album of music that he created to go along with this study, The Kindness of God. Both are fantastic tools for getting to know this critical Hebrew word.
Before we get into the word itself, let’s talk a little about words in general. Now, for a blatantly obvious statement, words mean things. Words are marked by definitions so that we can understand each other in our language. However, the definitions of words are not static; they tend to change over time. Consider the word “cool.” If in 1917 I saw a model T Ford roll off the assembly line and say, “wow, that is cool,” folks would look at me funny and wonder what the temperature of the car has to do with anything. However, if I am at the Indian Motorcycle plant and see a Chieftain roll off the assembly line, everyone would know what I am talking about.
Words can change meanings over time, but words have multiple definitions. Do I read a book on how to book my trip? Even though there are different spellings, if I say “they’re going over there to pick up their lunch,” you would all understand exactly what I am saying.
But let’s take this a little deeper. The more words a language has, the more specific the definitions of words become. Also, the more words in a language, the more synonyms there are. For example – beautiful, gorgeous, stunning – all kind of mean the same thing. The average English-speaking American knows and uses around 35,000 words. That’s a lot. So, when we explore ancient languages and attempt to define ancient words with modern American words, it becomes tricky. Ancient New Testament Greek writers had around 4,000 words. Far less than modern languages. Ancient Old Testament Hebrew, by contrast, has only 400 words. Therefore, Hebrew words have a lot more density – many more meanings and definitions when we try to bring them into our language.
This brings us to our word for today, hesed – חֶסֶד . At this point, I’d like to ask our volunteers to hand out the bookmarks I have prepared for you. On the bookmarks is the word hesed, along with just a handful of the definitions for this word. Out of the six principal English translations of the Bible, the word hesed is translated 169 different ways. It is one of the densest words in ancient Hebrew. Reading right to left, the first letter is Khet (ח), then Samek (ס), and finally Dalet (ד). Hebrew was originally written with only consonants. Somewhere in history – probably around the time of the Babylonian exile – Hebrew scholars added vowels, which the dots indicate below the word. Interestingly, academics of ancient languages and dialects suspect that the Galilean accent mentioned in the gospels softened the Khet to be more like an h sound. So, I will use the same pronouncement that perhaps Jesus used and say hesed.
The word is used 250 times in the Hebrew Bible and 127 times in the Psalms. To be sure, it is an essential word in that it is the most defining characteristic of the God we serve. Let’s take a look at Exodus 34 vss. 6-8. To set the stage for the passage, Moses and the Israelites have escaped Egypt; Moses has gone up Mt. Siani to get the ten commandments. He comes back down, and the Israelites are worshiping a golden calf. Moses broke the tablets, and a terrible judgment landed on Israel. Moses went back up Siani to get a new set of the commandments and asked God if he could look upon Him. God says that Moses can look at his back as God passes by:
The LORD passed in front of him and proclaimed:
The LORD—the LORD is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love (hesed) and truth, 7 maintaining faithful love (hesed) to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. 8 Moses immediately knelt low on the ground and worshiped. Exodus 34:6-8 CSB
God first showed Moses his character – who he was – before showing him his glory. This God is the God we serve. Let’s briefly see how it is used in another Psalm. Psalm 42, the excellent Psalm Pastor Brandon brought to us last week, in vs. 8, states: “The LORD will send his faithful love (hesed) by day; his song will be with me in the night— a prayer to the God of my life. (NIV)”. Faithful love is God’s dominating characteristic.
But in looking at passages using the word hesed, we need to understand how the Hebrew mind thinks. We, westerners, think in terms of nouns. The Hebrew mind thinks in terms of verbs. So, we see a chair; they would see sitting in a chair. We would see food, and they would see eating food. What does this mean for hesed? It means that his hesed not only defines God, but he also does, or he demonstrates his hesed. Consider Psalm 51:1 “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love (hesed); according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. (NIV)” God demonstrates his hesed by actively loving, showing mercy, and forgiving us in our sins.
Now, lest you think that this is only an Old Testament word, hesed had a profound impact in the New Testament. The writers of the New Testament were Jewish; they thought like Jews and thought in Hebrew. So, when they were writing in Greek, they had to translate these Hebrew thoughts into Greek words. When coming to hesed, like English, they had several words to talk about this critical concept. Let’s look at a few.
First, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures done about 200 years before Jesus was born) mainly uses the word ἐλεέω eleeō. The New Testament writers knew this and used it as well. Consider Matthew 5:7: Blessed are the merciful (ἐλεήμων eleēmōn), for they will be shown mercy (ἐλεέω). (NIV). Also they used the verb ἀγαπάω agapaō or the noun ἀγάπη agape. 1 John 3:23 – “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love (ἀγαπάω agapaō )one another as he commanded us.” The last one I will present is χάρις charis or grace. Romans 3:24 “all are justified freely by his grace (χάρις charis) through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Do you see the impact of this tiny Hebrew word on the entirety of the New Testament? All the main themes of mercy, love, and grace, used repeatedly by the New Testament writers, have their roots planted firmly in hesed.
Here is what I really want to leave you with. If you get nothing else out of this sermon, what I want you to take hold of and bury deep into your walk with Jesus, is that because God shows us hesed, we, in turn, need to demonstrate hesed to others. This command is not an option when it comes to our Christian faith – showing hesed to everyone we meet is mandatory. How do we show hesed? I think of Elizabeth, who shows so much hesed to those who are in a bad way. I think of Theda, who told us a story of when she showed hesed love to a homeless woman. I think of Paul Bill, who shows a bunch of guys hesed in our men’s life group every Monday. However, the sweetest act of hesed I have witnessed in this church came from Laura Sink. If you have ever received a hug from Laura, you know precisely what hesed is. Jesus demonstrated the greatest act of hesed with his death on the cross. Because we have put our faith in Christ, and we have received the Holy Spirit – the very presence of God – we inherit his qualities. As he shows hesed, so must we.
And that brings me to Psalm 136. This Psalm is a liturgical Psalm where the main speaker states the first line, and the congregation responds with, “His hesed endures forever.” Psalm 136 tells the story of Israel, reminding us repeatedly of God’s kindness – his love. It invites us to use this format for our own stories. For homework – yes, when Gregg preaches, there is homework – I want you to write down your God story. Maybe a time when you saw God come through in a big way. Maybe it was a very dark time in your life where God felt distant. Maybe you are going through that kind of dark time now. Whatever the case, write it down, one sentence at a time. In between each sentence, take a look at your bookmark and pick a definition that speaks to you, and write, “His love, kindness, mercy, or loyalty (whatever definition you want) endures forever. This exercise is a way to remind you that even though times might be challenging, or maybe times are pretty good – God’s hesed is eternally enduring.
Will you all stand, and after each line, I speak, state, “His hesed endures forever.” Look at the bookmark. Dwell on the different definitions. Meditate on God’s hesed for you and how you can show hesed to others. After we are done with the Psalm, Karry and I will be in the right corner of the room, and Brandon and Angela will be in the left. If God has moved you this morning, if you need a touch of His hesed love, if you need physical, emotional, or spiritual healing of any kind, please come forward and receive healing prayer.
Read Psalm 136.