The Wartburg Project

May 25th, 2022

77. God's Mercy and Faithfulness

In reading the Psalms and other books I have noticed that the EHV often translates “mercy” where other recent translations have “love” or “steadfast love.” Where other translations have something like “the godly one” EHV has something like “recipient of God’s favor or mercy.” Why is this? It seems EHV is more like the King James in speaking of God’s mercy.

God’s love, mercy, and faithfulness are like a multi-colored cloth or rainbow. The Bible uses many different Hebrew and Greek words to describe them. Though these words can sometimes be used as interchangeable synonyms, translations should try to preserve the distinctive flavor of each word. Where two words are connected to the same Hebrew or Greek root, the translation should attempt to preserve that connection. The EHV attempts to preserve the distinctness of each of these words.

The nature of this study requires that it will refer to many Hebrew and Greek words. Because this article is intended for a general audience, it will use the Hebrew and Greek forms of the words only in their first occurrence or in a few key occurrences, and we will use English transliterations in subsequent occurrences.

This study will focus on two Hebrew terms from the same Hebrew root, חֶסֶד (ḥesed) and חָסִיד (ḥasid).

חֶסֶד (ḥesed)

The NIV and other recent translations often translate חֶסֶד (ḥesed) as “love” or “steadfast love.” It seems best, however, to reserve the translation “love” for אֲהָבָה (ahavah), the generic Hebrew word for love, which is parallel to the Greek ἀγάπη (agape). The ancient versions of the Old Testament regularly translated ḥesed as “mercy” (Greek ἔλεος—eleos). The King James Version also followed this convention. About three-fourths of the occurrences of ḥesed in the Old Testament have God as the acting subject and man as the receiving object. In the early 20th century it became popular to claim that ḥesed was a word for covenant loyalty which meant something like “steadfast love.” God’s mercy certainly is exercised within his covenant and, thus, it is always faithful. This meaning of faithfulness, however, flows from the overall concept of God’s faithful love, not from the word ḥesed itself. God’s love and mercy are not a result of a covenant obligation, but his covenant obligation flows from his love and mercy. When the psalmist wants to stress the faithfulness aspect of God’s mercy, he makes it explicit by using the word pair חֶסֶד ואֱמֶת, ḥesed v-emet “mercy and truth,” that is, dependable mercy. It is the emet that expresses the faithfulness. Recently there has been a tendency to recognize this and to return to “mercy” as the best translation for ḥesed. This is the usual translation in the EHV. More than half of the 245 occurrences of ḥesed in the Old Testament are in Psalms, with a big boost from Psalm 136.

Other Hebrew roots which share the same field of meaning with ḥesed are the adjectives חַנּוּן (ḥanun), which is usually translated “gracious,” and רַחוּם (raḥum), which is usually translated “compassionate.” The word Hebrew word ḥanun is related to the root meaning of the Greek χάρις (charis—grace), but ḥesed also partakes of some of the meaning of charis. Raḥum is usually rendered with the idea of οἰκτιρμός (compassion) in Greek. Raḥum may have the connotation of a mother’s love since the Hebrew word for “womb” is also based on the root rḥm, but this may simply reflect the same emotional connotation as the Greek σπλάγχνα (splangchna) “gut feeling.”

The four Hebrew roots which emphasize God’s gracious mercy for sinners are all brought together in the revelation of the Lord’s name in Exodus 34:6:

יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
“The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God,
slow to anger, and overflowing with mercy and truth."

חָסִיד (ḥasid)

The word חָסִיד (ḥasid) is translated “godly” or “devout” in many recent translations. But because ḥasid is based on the same root as ḥesed, the common word for God’s mercy, translations should attempt to preserve that connection. The word ḥasid may describe a person as a recipient of God’s mercy, as a dispenser of mercy, or both. Hebrew words of this form may create an adjective expressing a passive idea (mercied) or a quality or state (merciful). Though the term was originally passive (mercied), such nouns also can express a state. Most lexicons favor the stative interpretation of ḥasid (merciful). This understanding is supported by Psalm 18:26 (English v 25), “with the merciful you show yourself merciful,” That ḥasid also carries with it the connotation “devout” is clear from the fact that it is sometimes parallel with the word, “servant,” and that the ḥasid is contrasted with the ungodly man. The strictly observant among modern-day Jews call themselves hasidim. Keeping both meanings together, we can say that the ḥasid is one who is merciful because he is motivated by God’s mercy. The ḥasid is what he is because of God’s ḥesed.

The word ḥasid occurs 32 times in the Old Testament, 25 of them in Psalms.

More than any other Hebrew word, ḥesed is the word that that expresses the Lord’s basic attitude toward his people. It is the practical and emotional equivalent of the word charis “grace” in the New Testament, but ḥesed focuses more on the mercy we receive and charis more on the undeserved love that gives it. The EHV tries to maintain the distinct emphasis on “mercy” in the ḥesed/ḥasid word pair. However, because “mercied” is not a common English word, it is often necessary to use a term like “recipient of mercy or favor” in those cases which emphasize what the person receives rather than on what he dispenses.