God's Abounding Love? What Does That Mean? The Hebrew Word for Love, Hesed

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"God Abounds in Love," What Does That Mean?

Why do we want to stay close to God? Why do we want to stay near to Him, day by day ? I know we have been told to do this – but why? Does it really make a difference? Why does God even care if we talk to Him? Although I cannot answer all those questions easily on my own, I can search the Bible for its truth and its promises.

So this morning, I came across Psalm 86. Psalm 86:5, and when I looked it up on my laptop the NIV
translation came up first, and this is what it said:

“You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call on you.” (NIV)

Isn't that beautiful and true? That is a reason we want to walk with God, a reason why we crave being near to him. The reason is because we know when we call on him, he will forgive us, he will be good to us and he will show us his abounding love.

I then looked at Psalm 86:5 in a few different modern translations, and I noticed something. It seemed that the translators over the past 100 years have struggled to translate the phrase that says God is “abounding in love.” Going back to the KJV, it didn't say “abounding in love.” Instead, it used the phrase that the Lord is “plenteous in mercy.” Then some of the older translations and even the more recent NASB from 1995 used a phrase saying the Lord is “abundant in lovingkindness.” A year later, the New Living Translation was released and translated the phrase as “so full of unfailing love.” In 2001, the English Standard Version came out and translated this saying that the Lord is “abounding in steadfast love” to all who call on him. Finally, the translators from the NIV from 2011 just translated it “abounding in love.” I suppose at that point the NIV translators just stopped trying? Just love? They didn't go for lovingkindness or steadfast love or unfailing love? Just love – that's it?

So now I'm curious about what the original word was here in Psalm 86:5. Obviously, this word has been very difficult for Biblical scholars to translate for over 100 years, so what could the Hebrew word be? I quickly pulled up the Hebrew interlinear version of the passage on biblehub.com. And here is the underlying word:

transliterated it is


with the accent on the first syllable and sounds like, in my Texas-style Hebrew, more like “Heh-sed.”

Now we have some clues that there is probably really more to know here about this word hesed, so I began digging into some word studies, and then I found an article online by a woman named Avital Snow.Much of what I tell you next comes from her research and writing, so I want to make sure I give her credit. Her article was published recently in May of 2021 on FirmIsrael.org with the title “The Meaning of Hesed: Hebrew Word for Love.”

Are you ready to hear all about it? Yes, of course!

First of all, hesed is difficult to translate into English, as we have just discovered. There are a range of meanings for it. One theologian (John Oswalt) explains that hesed is “a complete undeserved kindness and generosity.” Lois Tverberg states, “Hesed is not just a feeling; there is action behind it. It is an action that “intervenes on behalf of loved ones and comes to their rescue.” -Lois Tverberg, ourrabbijesus.org

I think that this may be why a number of the English versions of Psalm 86:5 translate hesed as “lovingkindness.” The word lovingkindness at least recognizes that one word in English cannot encapsulate it, so it slaps two words together, loving and kindness. And those two words together do pull in just a bit of the idea that it is a love backed  by action. Hesed is love as shown by kindness. Well, even lovingkindness doesn't come anything close to the depth of this word.

Bible Scholar Darrell L. Bock, from Dallas Theological Seminary here in Texas has said this: 

Hesed iswrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty–in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty.” -Darrel L Bock, [NAC] Judges, Ruth

Let's look at that again, and now we understand why it's so hard to translate. That definition is more than 24 words long in place of just the one word.

Let's break down and look at each phrase here:

Hesed is all the positive attributes of God (as if wrapped up in a package).

Hesed is also God's love, his covenant faithfulness, his mercy, grace, kindness, and loyalty – all of it!

Hesed, in short could be described as God's acts of devotion and loving-kindness. But it is those things given to us especially when we don't deserve it, nor haven't earned it, and there is no requirement or duty for God to give it to us.

That is all Hesed.

And when does God give us his hesed? Let's go back to Psalm 86:5 and look. “You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in hesed to all who call on you.” (NIV)

God gives us the kind of love that takes 24+ words to describe it kind of love. He gives his hesed, to us abundantly when we come near to him and call on him. He gives it when we stay near to him, when we walk with Him. When we turn to him and call on him.

Why would he do that for us? I don't understand it, do you? I just don't know why God does this, but I know he does it. Oh, thank the Lord he gives us his hesed. We can't fully explain it or comprehend it. We know we don't deserve it. So the next time we are reading in our Bibles and we see a word that has been translated as God's goodness, or love, or loving-kindness, or steadfast love, or faithful love, we may just want to check and see if it is the Hebrew word hesed that underlies the text. Now we know, that any single word in English only is able to slice off the top of the depth of the gift of God's hesed. A single English word is only able to serve us a small crumb of it.

Finally, in closing, let's look at one more verse in the book of Isaiah that uses the word. It's a wonderful verse to know and meditate on, especially during these current, stressful times. We are living now in a world that seems to be spinning out in uncertainty. With all the natural disasters it sometimes seems that perhaps parts of the Earth itself may be about to implode. Let's close by looking at Isaiah 54:10 which says, “Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing hesed for you will not be shaken.”

The hesed of God. It may take 24+ words to describe it. Yet it is what we may experience when we stay near to him and call on him.



If you would like to learn simple, practical ways to walk with God every single day, then you would really enjoy Closer to God: Simple Methods, Starting Today

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If you want to learn more deeply and fully about what Jesus taught, then you would enjoy He Called: 56 Daily Studies and Reflections with the Words of Christ. 


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