It’s a fair question.
As I try to reconstruct the story of how I became enamored with the word hesed, I find that for each step along the way my memory fails me somehow. Some years ago, while working through the laments of the Old Testament, I encountered this remarkable word for the first time. I had studied Hebrew as an undergraduate at Western Kentucky University, but I cannot remember my professors talking about this word. The truth is, they probably did, but I simply wasn’t listening.
One of the fascinating features of biblical laments, which so captured my imagination, was the way every one transitions. These psalms begin lamenting (which is still a form of worship), and then at some unpredictable point they transition and begin to praise. This shift usually takes place by means of the Hebrew letter vav, which is usually translated “and” or “but.” It is as if the lamenter finally exhausts himself and turns back to the God he was complaining to or about. (The sole exception is Psalm 88, which laments all the way to the end.)
In three important laments, Psalms 13 and 69 and Jeremiah’s Lamentations, the word hesed appears at this turning point. It marks the transition from despair to hope, from emptiness to a new possibility of becoming filled once more. It’s as if David and Jeremiah had run out of doubt and despair, had run out of words—except for this one untranslatable word. They could not exhaust its bottomless supply of hope, and by grace it rose to the surface of their lament, transforming it to praise. Their self-centered “I” mercifully became the God-centered “Thou.” The pain and frustration and anger were not wiped away but rather transformed by entering the world of this untranslatable, three-letter, two-syllable word, hesed. Here are those three transitions:
But I have trusted in your hesed. (Ps 13:5)
But as for me, LORD,
my prayer to you is for a time of favor.
In your abundant hesed, God,
answer me with your sure salvation. (Ps 69:13)
Because of the LORD’s hesed
we do not perish,
for his mercies never end. (Lam 3:22)
The next step in the process of becoming obsessed with hesed has also been lost to memory, which is hard to understand considering that my life has been so changed by it. As I remember, in the midst of a radio interview with one of my scholarly heroes, I mentioned my newfound fascination with hesed. I distinctly remembered him saying, “Oh, that is the defining characteristic of God.” That statement, coming from someone whose scholarship I so admired, lit the fuse. A few years later in a follow-up interview I reminded him of this statement. He insisted he never made it.
The final step involved the discovery of a working definition of this indefinable word. Again, the details have been lost. Looking back through the articles and notes I have collected over the years (two fifteen-hundred-page notebooks full!) I cannot find a trace of it anywhere. I don’t think I’m clever enough to have come up with it on my own, and so I do not claim it as my own original definition, though sadly I cannot give a proper attribution. It will provide our initial, ever-incomplete working definition:
Hesed: When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.
So in the midst of researching a different topic I discovered this remarkable word. (Perhaps it discovered me.) I learned about it in the course of discussions I might not have had and read about it in a source that might not exist. Like the members of the dictionary committee in 1844, I monumentally underestimated the task of writing a book on hesed. What I thought would take a year took ten. In the course of working on this book I realized that understanding hesed is a lifelong journey. None of us will ever get to the end of it in this life. This book is just the beginning of an exploration, an invitation to join in the journey of the vast world that is the word hesed, the greatest sacramental word in the Hebrew Bible.