Most people have at least one great interest—bird watching, rock climbing, gardening, coin collecting, listening to music, etc.—through which they experience the beauty of God and of God’s creation. Along with his great interest in music, award-winning musician and performing artist, Michael Card, loves to study and share about the Hebrew word hesed, God’s lovingkindness, covenant faithfulness, and mercy.
Card wrote the book Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness to highlight the eternal disposition of the God of Israel revealed throughout the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. We meet hesed in the Mass when we pray, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy,” and in the Salve Regina when we appeal to our Mother of Mercy.
I’m writing this review for three reasons. First, I want to motivate you to read the book. Inexpressible is the product of scholarly investigation and skillful writing. Card’s voice is clear and inviting. His compelling illustrations keep us attentive. Second, I want you to be able to recognize and relish hesed whenever you encounter it in the English Bible. Finally, I want to remember the trajectory of hesed throughout the Sacred Scriptures.
As the author studied hesed, somehow, somewhere (he doesn’t remember where), he came across this definition of this word which is beyond words: We experience hesed when the person from whom we have a right to expect nothing gives us everything (5).
Part One: The God of Hesed
The Lord God revealed his nature to Moses on Mount Sinai:
The lord, the lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but bringing punishment for their parents’ wickedness on children and children’s children to the third and fourth generation! (Ex. 34:6-7)
That is, the God of Israel does the impossible: He perfectly balances mercy and justice. He is full of lovingkindness, yet he will not let the guilty go unpunished.
Later, when the lord threatens to destroy Israel because of the nation’s rebellion, Moses prays using what he has learned about God to save the nation (Num. 14:17-19).
Now then, may my lord’s forbearance be great, even as you have said, ‘The lord is slow to anger and abounding in kindness, forgiving iniquity and rebellion; yet certainly not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children to the third and fourth generation for their parents’ iniquity.’ Pardon, then, the iniquity of this people in keeping with your great kindness, even as you have forgiven them from Egypt until now.”
“Give thanks to the lord, for he is good; his hesed endures forever” becomes an everlasting refrain when David brings the Ark of the Covenant into the tent he has erected (1 Chron. 16:34, 36, 41). The formula, “But you, lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in mercy and truth,” is used by David (Ps. 86:15; 103:7-10; 145:8-9), Nehemiah (9:17), Joel (2:13), and Isaiah (54:7-8).
Solomon employs the Exodus 34 revelation when he dedicates the Temple (2 Chron. 5:13; 6:14; 41-42; 7:3). Other instances include 2 Chronicles 20:14-15, 21 (a battle setting), Ezra 3:11 (when the foundation of the temple was rebuilt), Psalm 100:5; 106:1; 107:1-2, and Jeremiah 33:11 (a prediction of peace).
Psalm 109 is “A Prayer of Honest Rage.” It teaches us to take our anger and outrage to “the One we hope and trust and believe cares more deeply for the poor than we ever will” (55). Hesed occurs four times in this psalm—twice directed against his enemy (vv. 12, 16), and twice as an appeal to God (vv. 21, 26).
Part Two: The Objects of Hesed
Card recalls a time when he was the recipient of hesed, “When Dinah Held My Hand.” It was in a setting where he had every right to expect indifference or even hostility. Yet, a complete stranger showered him with lovingkindness.
We learn about hesed from King David’s life. It was part of his DNA, for his great grandmother, Ruth, was the paradigm of hesed. (63) Early on, David was a stranger to lovingkindness, for as the youngest of eight sons he was overlooked when the prophet Samuel came to anoint a new king (64). David’s relationship with Jonathan reveals the reciprocity of hesed (64-68). And David seeks forgiveness for his sins of adultery and murder, in accordance with God’s hesed (Psalm 51:1).
The vocation of the musician Ethan was to “sing about the lord’s hesed forever” (Ps. 89:1-2). It’s part of our vocation too:
When we see an act of hesed, an act where someone who has a right to expect nothing is nevertheless given everything, all of sudden there are tears in our eyes, some sort of resonance in our hearts, maybe even the beginnings of a song (74).
The centerpiece of Psalm 90, the only psalm we have from Moses, is “Satisfy us in the morning with your hesed.” There are many examples where hesed and morning appear together.
It touches the heart that this particular psalmist, among all others, would sing about the morning as a time when his appetite would be filled, not with manna that lasts only for a day but with hesed that is everlasting. The connections therefore are between morning, manna, hunger, and hesed (82).
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the bread of life, fulfills Moses’ longings, for he promises to permanently satisfy our deepest hunger (Jn. 6:48-51).
Jeremiah uses the word hesed more frequently than the other prophets, and his writings display many of the unique facets of the word. (85) What’s more, Jeremiah reveals that God will send his “Righteous Branch,” the visible, living, breathing incarnation of hesed. His name will be ‘The Lord is Our Righteousness’ (Jer. 23:5-6).
The book of Hosea is a dramatic reenactment of the covenant faithfulness the Lord expressed toward his adulterous people. “It is not the call to marry Gomer, the prostitute, that is impossible, but the demand that she be loved in spite of her ongoing unfaithfulness” (89). After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, Hosea 6:6 (“It is hesed I desire, not sacrifice.”) reshaped the faith of Israel. (90)
Part Three: Hesed Finally Defined
Hesed runs throughout the New Testament. The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible translated hesed, most often, as eleos or mercy. (98, 162) So when we encounter the word “mercy” in the New Testament and in the Mass, we should think hesed. Moreover, the most frequent phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures associated with hesed is hesed va emet, “grace and truth.” (99) Thus the description of Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14) conveys that Jesus is filled with hesed. Indeed, many who encountered Jesus had no right to expect anything, yet they received everything precisely because, like his Father, Jesus is full of grace and truth. (101)
Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” twice in Matthew’s Gospel. Fellowship with tax collectors and sinners is an act of hesed. (9:13) Compassion for his disciples is more important than rigorous observance of Sabbath regulations. (12:7)
Our Lord is amazed by the expectation of a Roman centurion whose servant is about to die (Lk. 7:1-10). The centurion’s friends tell Jesus that he deserves kindness. But the centurion thinks otherwise: “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But say the word and my servant will be healed.” The Lord is astonished because this pagan man understands the Hebrew concept of hesed: Though he has no right to expect anything, he anticipates receiving everything. (112)
Jesus answers a scribe’s question “And who is my neighbor?” with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). When he finishes the story Jesus asks, “Who was the neighbor to the wounded man?” Card comments, “I imagine the scribe looking down at the ground as he answers, avoiding the use of the word Samaritan. His circumlocution says it all: ‘The one who showed mercy’ (i.e., did hesed)” (116).
St. Paul uses words like mercy, grace, kindness, and love in his correspondence to convey hesed. Card’s discussion of hesed in the Apostle’s letters reminds me of this beautiful expression of God’s lovingkindness:
But when the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy,
he saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
Part Four: An Instinct for Hesed
Card recalls a missed opportunity to express hesed toward a rabbi on an airport shuttle. “Then and there I asked the Lord of lovingkindness to transform my heart, to shape it like his heart” (126). In that way he would participate in the fundamental tenet of Judaism after the destruction of the temple in AD 70—repairing the world through acts of hesed. (129) Jesus anticipated that tradition by instructing us to feed the hungry and visit the sick, etc. (Matt. 25:31-41).
The book concludes with a reminder that God’s way is to act justly, to love hesed (Ex. 34:6-7) and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). “Through Jesus [God] fulfilled the promise to not leave the guilty unpunished by placing the punishment on Jesus in an act of pure and perfect hesed. Jesus did justice by loving hesed” (134). Further, we’re challenged to allow the Spirit to put hesed into our hearts so that we can express lovingkindness to our families, to our churches and towns, and to our enemies. (135) Card also includes a beautiful expanded definition of hesed based on all he has written.
The Appendices, Endnotes, Bibliography, and Scripture Index are a virtual tool box for working with hesed in the Scriptures, worth the price of the book.
If I have aroused your interest in the book Inexpressible and the word hesed, by all means read the book so that you can study the word. Then your daily prayer may become, “Fill us at daybreak with your kindness, that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days” (Ps. 90:14).