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There is no good English word that we have that encompasses this Hebrew word. Here is a selection of translations of חסד from Psalm 136: Steadfast love, mercy, faithful love, loving devotion, faithfulness, loving-kindness, love, kindness, gracious love, loyal love. I surveyed 21 different English translations and that’s why I found. So, what is the definition of חסד? How has it traditionally been translated? What might we use going forward? Well, let’s take a look at these questions one at a time.
First, what is the definition? Brown-Driver-Briggs defines it as: goodness, kindness, faithfulness, loving-kindness. (It has a secondary meaning, but that was the topic of an earlier article link here?) But that is a bit abstract. Could it be as simple as just calling it “love?” I don’t think the baggage associated with the English love is helpful, because it’s more than just how we talk about love today. There is the unconditional aspect to it, that there is nothing that we’ve done to deserve this love. There is a gracious and merciful aspect to it as well. As not only have we not done anything to deserve it, in fact, we’ve done all that we can to push it away. And there’s also this faithful aspect to it as well, that even though we’ve fought against it, rejected it, turned away from it, God has never retracted this love. He remains faithful to His creation, even when His creation has turned their backs on Him. And there’s a reciprocal aspect to it as well, that חסד is given and then returned in kind. And this is only dealing with the primary usage of חסד, from God to us, and then from us to God.
But this word is not soley from God to us, but also from one to another, from King David to those who sheltered him (1 Kings 2:7), to Saul from those who buried his body (2 Samuel 2:5), from Joseph to Israel after his death (Genesis 47:29). So, how can this word mean all those things mentioned above when we deal with one human to another. Surely we’re not capable of the same level of love for one another that God shows to us? If this were of mankind alone, then that answer would be true. But we have to place our talk of חסד within the words of the Scriptures, and I think John’s words are especially apropos here. 1 John 4:19 We love Him because He first loved us. Because we have experienced the loyal, loving-kindness of God, we are able to share it with others. Yes, this even includes unbelievers who don’t understand the depth of the love they’ve been shown. Those who would deny that God exists still exist themselves, they have not been forgotten by God. The rain continues to fall on the just and the unjust alike, so they too can express this kindness, this faithful love and share it with others, even if they don’t know the source, or even if they deny the source.
So how has this word traditionally been translated? We’ve already looked at some of how modern English translations deal with this word, but the best place to start is that first major translation, the Septuagint. The overwhelming translation is ἔλεος [mercy] or derivatives thereof (221 times). Outside of this, the next largest word chosen is δικαιοσύνη [righteousness] (8 times). This is the tradition that influences the translators of the King James, leading them to translate חסד with the English word “mercy” almost exclusively. And mercy certainly captures the undeserved and unconditional aspect, as mercy is not something that is earned by you, rather it is granted to you by those in authority over you. If the court shows you mercy, for example, you have not earned that mercy, rather it is granted purely at the discretion of the judge/magistrate. They may cite an example of your behavior as the reason for their granting of mercy, but it’s ultimately in their hands to grant or to withhold mercy. But mercy is not a perfect word in English. It fails to adequately convey the faithful aspect, the enduring aspect, and the reciprocal aspect.
What word should we use in English? I contend that no word in our current lexicon adequately encompasses the depth of this word. Love is too generic, and filled with emotional baggage that doesn’t serve the translation well. Kindness, while incorporating the active part of this love, fails to convey the faithful and persevering aspect. What about those compound translations such as steadfast love or loving-kindness? These do a better job of conveying the depth, but sound out of place in our speech, and חסד is all around us, even if we don’t know it or recognize it. Therefore to have such a clunky phrase for a basic truth isn’t ideal. So how have we dealt with similar linguistic problems in the past? One way is to simply transliterate the word and explain it. The greatest example here is the simple word “Amen.” It is a translation from the Hebrew, into the Greek, then into the Latin, landing in English. This has been my answer to those I’ve taught directly. Of course, if we have more and more Christians interested in the Bible in the original languages, this won’t be a problem.
I hope that this better helps you understand this important word, and I’d encourage you to read Psalm 136 with this knowledge. It’s comparable to switching from black and white to color, you can understand the picture just fine in black and white, but all the nuance and depth is lost. But now you’ve got a color portrait of חסד, enjoy all the colors of God’s steadfast, enduring, faithful, kind, merciful love for you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
by Nythrius (Hebrew wizard)