This post is an attempt at a word study for the Hebrew word chesed, or sometimes spelled hesed. In English language Bible translations the word is mercy, lovingkindness, or love, among many. This is an attempt to discover the meaning of the word chesed using only the Bible and the context that the word is used in.
What must be addressed from the start is the secular world’s understanding of this word chesed (from here on will be referred to as “mercy”) as it is taught from the secular point of view. Mercy is defined as having compassion on those who do not deserve forgiveness for a crime committed, whether that crime be against an individual or the state (paraphrase with additions). As we will see, the Biblical meaning of mercy, as it is in its context, does not differ from the secular definition all that much. However, how it is related to the God of the universe is intrinsic to the meaning that we derive from the Bible.
Mercy in the Biblical sense is related to the covenant of God with His people and His choice to show mercy on them. As we will find, God has mercy on those who do not deserve it, but because of His love for His people he decides to show compassion to them. As this word is a Hebrew word and found in the Old Testament, the covenant that is mentioned in this post is the covenant of the Old Testament. God in His infinite wisdom sees fit to have mercy on His creatures that otherwise do not deserve it.
Lot, in Genesis 19:19, acknowledges that God has shown him favor by having mercy on him and saving his life from the coming judgment that stared down Sodom and Gomorrah. The men in the two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, were living in great sin. The angels, sent by God, were going to destroy the two cities, but God showed Lot favor and allowed him to collect his family and escape the coming judgment.
In Genesis 32:10 Jacob, during his journey back to his brother Esau, says to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; …” Jacob summarizes the point nicely, unbeknownst to him, that none of the recipients of God’s mercy that have been discussed so far in this post were deserving of it.
What was special about Lot or Jacob that God should show them mercy? It all goes back to Abraham. Abraham was called by God for no reason known to us and God made a covenant with Abraham. It was God who initiated the covenant between him and Abraham when He passed between the animal parts for the sacrifice that was prepared by Abraham. This meant that, because it came from God and not man, it could not be broken. So God shows favor to His covenant people by having undeserved mercy on them.
However, in Exodus 34:6 God tells Moses that He has mercy for thousands and “forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” God will have mercy for those that do not deserve it, but the consequences of their sins will be dealt with. In other words, God has mercy on the sinner, but the sinner still has to pay for his sins.
In Deuteronomy 5:10 God explains that He gives mercy to those who love Him and keep His commandments. God has mercy on His people—those who love Him—but only if they obey Him. All throughout the Old Testament we see the rollercoaster ride that the Israelites are on. They follow God’s commandments and they prosper, they do not follow His commandments and He disciplines them by multiple means.
In 1 Chronicles 16:34, 41 it says that God’s mercy is everlasting. In other words, there is no end to His mercy. There are many more verses in the Old Testament that speak of God’s mercy. All follow the same basic idea—God’s mercy is everlasting and He gives it to those who keep His commandments—He has mercy on those who do not deserve His mercy, and this includes us.
The secular idea of mercy is that it is undeserved; the biblical idea of mercy is that it too is undeserved. So God has mercy on those who do not deserve His mercy. He has mercy on those who love Him and keep His commandments. His mercy is everlasting. So what is the meaning of mercy (chesed) based upon the biblical context?
From the context we see that the word mercy, in the Bible, means that God looks over His creation; He sees the rebellion against Him and His commandments; He understands that this deserves death; yet if His creation asks to be pardoned of their iniquity, God will not completely forget all sins, but, instead of death, His creation has to deal with the consequences of their sins and He pardons their iniquities according to His Word.
How can this be applied to our lives? God made a covenant with Abraham a long time ago. God did this for no apparent reason but that He wanted to set apart for Himself a chosen people that would glorify His name. This covenant is known as the old covenant from the Old Testament. God loves His people, and as a result of His love He has mercy on them whenever they turn from their iniquities.
God has made a new covenant with us known as the new covenant in the New Testament. God sought out His people many times in the Old Testament; He sent His prophets to turn the people back to Him—to stop rebelling against His commandments. Now He has sent His son to draw His people to Him.
God sent Jesus to die on the cross as an offering; a sacrifice for those who will believe on Him and follow His teachings. God has provided a way for us to be redeemed from our sin, to be justified before God our judge. That way is Jesus Christ. We do not deserve to be forgiven, yet God has given us the way to receive mercy and live forever with Him in heaven.
What keeps God from wiping us from the face of the earth? We deserve this treatment, yet God has not done so. After the great flood God told Noah that never again will He destroy all of mankind in a flood, and as a symbol of this promise whenever it rains we will see rainbows in the sky to remind us of the promise that God made to Noah. God in His wrath destroyed all of humanity minus Noah and his family. Afterward, God regretted what He had done and showed mercy upon mercy to His people since then.
God could destroy us again, but because of His love, His compassion, and His kindness, He chooses to have mercy on us. As we look at the world today—wars, crime, violence, destruction, poverty, corruption, disease, pollution, all of the ingredients of a fallen world—we see what God sees, and by the definition that we concluded from our study we can understand why we have not been taken out by the God of the universe. God has mercy because he loves those who love Him and follow His commandments. To receive God’s mercy we should do what the Bible says, and that is to love God with all our heart and follow His commandments; ask for forgiveness for your sins and God will have mercy on you and forgive you, and instead of death you will receive eternal life.
The definition of mercy in the Bible is not all that different from the secular definition of mercy, except for one thing. The definition of mercy in the Bible carries with it the promise of eternal life.