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“Chesed; What Kind of Love is This?”

Psalm 52:8 and others
Bob DeGray
November 7, 2004

Key Sentence

Trust in God’s unfailing love.


I. Chesed of God (Exodus 34:5-7)
II. Chesed of Man (Micah 6:8)
III. So What? (Psalm 52:8, Psalm 63:3)


        Neon words. This is week two of our series on words from the Old Testament that stand out as being highly significant and important. We started last week by looking at righteousness, and we’ll move in December to neon words of Christmas, but this week we’re focusing, on perhaps the most neon word of all, the one that coined the term, the word ‘chesed’. For years I’ve been spitting that Hebrew word out at you, trying to capture the kind of hard ‘H’ sound that it starts with, and trying to capture the scope of what it means about God. About ten years ago I printed a list of the 239 places ‘chesed’ is used in the Old Testament. I’ve mentioned it frequently since then. So in preparing this message, I had mixed emotions. It’s such a rich word that I didn’t want to skip it, but I’ve talked about it so much that I didn’t want to do a traditional sermon. Furthermore, so many of those 239 uses are full of meaning that I would have had a lot of trouble narrowing them down to a preachable few. You know I have trouble with that. So I decided not to narrow it down, but to let you randomly select from all these verses with the hopes that you will appreciate just how pervasive and important this neon word is.

        ‘Chesed’. We need a simple English definition for this or I’m going to ‘ch’ my throat out before our time is up. On one level the word simply means ‘love’ but you and I and the translators of scripture can’t really be content with that for two reasons. First, there is a another Hebrew word for love that fits a simple understanding of love better. Second, ‘chesed’ is used in such rich ways that it cries out for a richer translation. So beginning with the King James version translators have used a number of terms. The first, and possibly still the best, was ‘loving kindness’: ‘chesed’ is God’s love acting in practical kindness to his people. Later, based on a number of contextual issues, Bible scholars proposed that it really means ‘covenant faithfulness’, God’s working out of his commitments. But while often true, that’s hard to fit in most of these verses. Recently translations like the NIV have gone with ‘love’ in some circumstances and ‘unfailing love’ or ‘enduring love’ in places where the word is emphasized. I think there is merit in all of these: ‘loving kindness’, ‘covenant faithfulness’, ‘unfailing love’ and I’ll use all of them and more as we walk through Scripture this morning, but my key sentence is built out of the NIV translation: trust in God’s unfailing love. What I think we need to take away from this morning is the simple challenge of trusting God because of his ‘chesed.’

        So how are we going to work this morning, if not as a traditional sermon? Here’s what I’ve done. First, of those 239 uses of loving kindness, I eliminated a very few that I didn’t think led anywhere. I divided the rest into three buckets. The first bucket is our first outline point, the chesed of God, Scriptures in which we learn something about God’s unfailing love.

        The second bucket is ‘chesed of man’, in which we will learn about the kindness and love we are expected to show. Finally, there’s the third bucket, the ‘so what’ bucket. Here we’ll find verses that show how we respond to the unfailing love of God.

I. Chesed of God (Exodus 34:5-7)

        The many uses of chesed in the Scriptures make it clear that loving kindness and covenant faithfulness and unfailing love is a key characteristic or attribute of God. It is in fact one of the hallmark characteristics he announced when he revealed himself to Moses on Sinai. Exodus 34:5-7 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

        Of all the uses of ‘chesed’ in the Old Testament, this is probably the one reference it was mandatory we look at. Why? First, because it is God describing himself: gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in ‘chesed’. He overflows with practical love, and provides it abundantly to men. Notice it’s paired with faithfulness. This is a common pairing in the Old Testament: Love and faithfulness, or loving kindness and truth. Finally, we had to look at this verse, while selecting randomly for others, because this verse is quoted or alluded to at least 18 times and arguably many more in the Old Testament. As we said, when Solomon, David, Nehemiah and even Jonah had their quiet times, this was the neon verse. They recognized that God was a just God who judges sin, but they also remembered that in his abundant loving kindness he forgives sin, wickedness, and rebellion. This basic truth about God became a cornerstone for generations of Old Testament believers.

        But let’s look at some other verses. I believe there are about 40 slips in the ‘Chesed of God’ bucket, and I’d like you to pick one and read it. Just put up your hand and Mike will bring you the bucket and a microphone. If, after you read you want to make a comment on the verse, that would be great too.

        (three verses with comments)

II. Chesed of Man (Micah 6:8)

        We’ve seen that God is a God of loving kindness, covenant faithfulness, unfailing love. I read parts of a book this week called ‘Love Beyond Reason’ by John Ortberg, the teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. It caught my eye because of the blurb on the back: “In Love Beyond Reason John Ortberg reveals the God you’ve longed to encounter: a Father head-over-heels in love with you, his child and intensely committed to your highest joy. Ortberg takes you to the very core of God’s being to discover a burning, passionate love that gives, and give us, and gives.” That’s the kind of God we’ve encountered in these last several verses.

        But the blurb also promises that the book will show you how you “can love your mate, your family, your friends, and the world around you with the same practical, transforming love.” It seems a little bit audacious to claim that we can in any sense love in the way God loves, with loving kindness, and covenant faithfulness, and unfailing devotion. And yet it is not just Ortberg who calls us to this. The Scriptures themselves call us to chesed. One of the best known of these calls is Micah 6:8, a verse we sang in our choruses: He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Last week we saw that we were called to righteous behavior – to act justly. Now we see that the Lord also requires us to ‘love mercy’, or as the New American Standard says, to ‘love kindness’

        Here the most common word for love and our word ‘chesed’ are set next to each other. This helps us know for sure that our word is something other or more than mere love. It is in fact a character quality we are called to love, and to imitate. We’re to value in our own lives and the lives of others the display of kindness and enduring love and faithfulness. Isn’t that what you really want from the love of others: kindness and endurance and faithfulness? Isn’t that what you yourself ought to give? I want you to stop and really think about this: Isn’t kindness and enduring love and faithfulness what you really want? That’s God’s love and it ought to be ours.

        So that’s just one verse that calls us to practice ‘chesed’. Let’s go to our next bucket, Mike, and we’ll randomly pick more verses that will show us either examples of this kindness in the lives of individuals, or commands to display this kind of love.

        (three verses with comments)

III. So What? (Psalm 52:8, Psalm 63:3)

        Now we’ve seen God’s unfailing love, we’ve seen how that same love is to be lived out in the lives of people. The third bucket is called ‘so what’. In this bucket we’re not going to find many verses that tell us what to do, but we will find verses that show what attitudes and actions grow out of really believing that God is head-over-heels faithfully in love with us. When we read these verses we should be looking for our response, the difference it should make in our lives. I’m going to do two of these first, because I don’t want to randomly miss them.

        Psalm 52:8 But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God's unfailing love for ever and ever. To me this is the key heart attitude associated with chesed. We can entirely trust God because his character toward us is kindness and faithfulness. Dallas Willard writes that “Jesus lived a life of utter trust because he understood his father to be unfailingly competent and wholly devoted” - he knew a God of unfailing love. From this Willard discerns that: “with this magnificent God positioned among us, Jesus brings the assurance that our universe is a perfectly safe place for us to be.”

        Is that the way it feels to you? Perfectly safe? If you trusted more in a God of unfailing love, would it feel more perfectly safe? John Ortberg quotes Willard in his book, and then says “It really is true. Our universe is a perfectly safe place for us to be. Not because bad things won’t happen, but because, as Paul says “who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” The worst weapons this world can unleash cannot ultimately harm us because of that love. In a real sense the refrain of our lives, no matter what our circumstances, ought to be “I trust in his unfailing love.”

        A second attitude that grows out of knowing this love, is praise. Psalm 63:3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. J. I. Packer teaches that in order to appreciate the greatness of God we should compare him to something we consider great. Normally we think of this in terms of mountains or powerful storms or something great in the natural realm. But the Bible also applies this principle to things like comparing God to a great and powerful king, and here, comparing the value we should place on God’s unfailing love to the value we place on life itself. We weigh the two in a balance, and the Psalmist says ‘I’d rather have your love. I value that more than my life.” And because he has that attitude about God’s love, he is compelled to praise or glorify God. “Thy mercy, my God is the theme of my song, the joy of my heart and the boast of my tongue.”

        Let’s see if we can reinforce these two attitudes, ‘I trust in your unfailing love’ and ‘my lips will praise you,’ or add some new attitudes to them by randomly dipping into the ‘so what’ bucket. If you’d like to pick a verse, to read it and maybe make a comment on it, raise your hand, and Mike will try to get to you.

        (three verses with comments)

        So what have we said? We’ve looked at a dozen verses, about five percent of the times this word is used, and we’ve found that a core characteristic of God is his loving kindness, his covenant faithfulness, his unfailing love. We’ve also seen that though this is a characteristic of God’s, it is one we are called to imitate. And finally, we’ve seen that because of his unfailing love we can trust him with our lives, he’s worthy of our praise, and we can have confidence in our prayers.

        It’s His unfailing love that we remember in communion, and as we turn our attention that way, I want to share a story that John Ortberg tells at the beginning of Love Beyond Reason:

        Her Name was Pandy. She had lost a good deal of her hair, one of her arms was missing, and, generally speaking, she'd had the stuffing knocked out of her. She was my sister Barbie's favorite doll.

        She hadn't always looked like this. She had been a personally selected Christmas gift by a cherished aunt who had traveled to a great department store in faraway Chicago to find her. Her face and hands were made of some kind of rubber or plastic so that they looked real, but her body was stuffed with rags to feel soft and squeezable, like a real baby. When my aunt looked in the display window at Marshall Fields and found Pandy, she knew she had found something very good.

        When Pandy was young and a looker, Barbie loved her. She loved her with a love that was too strong for Pandy's own good. When Barbie went to bed at night, Pandy lay next to her. When Barbie had lunch, Pandy ate beside her at the table. When Barbie could get away with it, Pandy took a bath with her. Barbie's love for that doll was, from Pandy's point of view, pretty nearly a fatal attraction.

        By the time I knew Pandy, she was not a particularly attractive doll. In fact, to tell the truth she was a mess. She was no longer a very valuable doll; I'm not sure we could have given her away. But for reasons no one could ever quite figure out, in the way kids sometimes do, my sister Barbie loved that little rag doll still. She loved her as strongly in the days of Pandy's raggedness as she ever had in her days of great beauty. Other dolls came and went. Pandy was family. Love Barbie, love her rag doll. It was a package deal.

        Once we took a vacation from our home in Rockford, Illinois, to Canada. We had returned almost all the way home when we realized at the Illinois border that Pandy had not come back with us. She had remained behind at the hotel in Canada.

        No other option was thinkable. My father turned the car around and we drove from Illinois all the way back to Canada. We were a devoted family. Not a particularly bright family, perhaps, but devoted. We rushed into the hotel and checked with the desk clerk in the lobby_no Pandy. We ran back up to our room _ no Pandy .We ran downstairs and found the laundry room _ Pandy was there, wrapped up in the sheets, about to be washed to death. The measure of my sister's love for that doll was that she would travel all the way to a distant country to save her.

        The years passed, and my sister grew up. She outgrew Pandy. She traded her in for a boyfriend named Andy (who, oddly enough, was even less attractive than the doll.) Pandy had not been much of a bargain for a long while, and by now the only logical thing left to do was to toss her out. But this my mother could not bring herself to do. She held Pandy one last time, wrapped her with exquisite care in some tissue, placed her in a box, and stored her in the attic for twenty years.

        When I was growing up I had all kinds of casual playthings and stuffed animals. My mother didn't save any of them. But she saved Pandy. Want to guess why? It was the nature of my sister's love is what made Pandy so valuable.

        Barbie loved that doll with the kind of love that made the doll precious to anyone who loved Barbie. All those tears and hugs and secrets got mixed in with the rags somehow. If you loved Barbie, you just naturally loved Pandy too.

        More years passed. My sister got married (not to Andy) and moved far away. She had three children, the last of whom was a little girl named Courtney, who soon reached the age where she wanted a doll. No other option was thinkable. Barbie went back to Rockford, back to the attic, and dragged out the box. By this time, though, Pandy was more rag than doll.

        So my sister took her to a doll hospital in California (there really is such a place) and had her go through reconstructive surgery. Pandy was given a facelift or liposuction or whatever it is that they do for dolls, until after thirty years Pandy became once again as beautiful on the outside as she bad always been in the eyes of the one who loved her. I'm not sure she looked any better to Barbie, but now it was possible for others to view what Barbie had always seen in her.

        When Pandy was young, Barbie loved her. She celebrated her beauty. When Pandy was old and ragged, Barbie loved her still. Now she did not simply love Pandy because Pandy was beautiful, she loved her with a kind of love that made Pandy beautiful.

        God’s love for rag dolls, that is for ragged people, is the running illustration in Ortberg’s book. And you and I are the ragged people that God loves with an unfailing love.