The fourth of the Ten Sefirot — chesed — precedes all others because it is the only one that is unconditional and unmotivated.
Biblical scholars have often complained that the word חֶסֶד in the Hebrew Bible is difficult to translate into English, because it really has no precise equivalent in our language. English versions usually try to represent it with such words as “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “steadfast love,” and sometimes “loyalty,” but the full meaning of the word cannot be conveyed without an explanation, such as the one given in the article below.
Loving-Kindness. This is a biblical word, invented by Miles Coverdale, and carried over into the English versions generally. It is one of the words he used in the Psalms (23 times, plus Hosea 2:19) to translate the Hebrew chesed when it refers to God’s love for his people Israel. Otherwise he used ‘mercy,’ ‘goodness,’ and ‘great kindness’ in the Psalms for God’s attitude to man; and, outside the Psalms, such words as ‘mercy,’ ‘goodness,’ ‘favour’ for God’s attitude to man, and ‘kindness’ for man’s attitude to man. It is important to notice that Coverdale takes pains to avoid using the word ‘kindness’ of God’s attitude to man, though he is not followed in this respect by the Authorized Version and the Revised Version. There is one case in the Psalms (141:5) where the word chesed is used of man’s attitude to man, and even here Coverdale avoids ‘kindness’ (so AV and RV), but has ‘friendly.’ The nearest New Testament equivalent to the Hebrew chesed is charis (grace), as Luther realized when he used the German Gnade for both words.
The word is used only in cases where there is some recognized tie between the parties concerned. It is not used indiscriminately of kindness in general, haphazard, kindly deeds; this is why Coverdale was careful to avoid using the word ‘kindness’ in respect of God’s dealings with his people Israel. The theological importance of the word chesed is that it stands more than any other word for the attitude which both parties to a covenant ought to maintain towards each other. Sir George Adam Smith suggested the rendering ‘leal-love.’ The merit of this translation is that it combines the twin ideas of love and loyalty, both of which are essential. On the other hand, it does not sufficiently convey the idea of the steadfastness and persistence of God’s sure love for his covenant-people. His other suggestion, ‘troth,’ is better in this respect, but the etymological core of the word is ‘eagerness, keenness,’ and, whilst there is considerable development from this, the word never belies its origins. In Isaiah 40:6, for instance, the word chesed is used to describe man’s steadfastness, or rather the lack of it. 1 The English versions have ‘goodliness,’ following some of the ancient versions, but the Targum (old Jewish Aramaic paraphrase) was right when it said ‘their strength.’ The prophet is contrasting man’s frailty with God’s steadfast reliability. He says that all man’s steadfastness is like the wild flowers, here today and gone tomorrow, whilst the Word of the Lord is steady and sure, firm and reliable.
God’s loving-kindness is that sure love which will not let Israel go. Not all Israel’s persistent waywardness could ever destroy it. Though Israel be faithless, yet God remains faithful still. This steady, persistent refusal of God to wash his hands of wayward Israel is the essential meaning of the Hebrew word which is translated loving-kindness. In Jeremiah 2:2 the word chesed is rendered ‘kindness,’ the reference being to ‘the kindness of thy youth,’ and this phrase is paralleled by ‘the love of thine espousals.’ The meaning is not that Israel was more tender in her attitude towards God or in her affections, but that in the first days after the rescue from Egypt she was faithful to the marriage-covenant with God. The charge of the prophets is that Israel’s loyalty to her covenant with God (Hosea 6:4, ‘goodness’ in the English versions) is ‘as the morning cloud, and as the dew that goeth early away,’ a regular feature of the Palestinian climate when once the spring rains are past.
The widening of the meaning of the Hebrew chesed, used as the covenant word and especially of the covenant between God and Israel, is due to the history of God’s dealings with his covenant-people. The continual waywardness of Israel has made it inevitable that, if God is never going to let Israel go, then his relation to his people must in the main be one of loving-kindness, mercy, and goodness, all of it entirely undeserved. For this reason the predominant use of the word comes to include mercy and forgiveness as a main constituent in God’s determined faithfulness to his part of the bargain. It is obvious, time and again, from the context that if God is to maintain the covenant he must exercise mercy to an unexampled degree. For this reason the Greek translators of the Old Testament (third century BC onwards) used the Greek eleos (mercy, pity) as their regular rendering, and Jerome (end of fourth century AD and beginning of fifth) followed with the Latin misericordia.
The loving-kindness of God towards Israel is therefore wholly undeserved on Israel’s part. If Israel received the proper treatment for her stubborn refusal to walk in God’s way, there would be no prospect for her of anything but destruction, since God’s demand for right action never wavers one whit. Strict, however, as the demands for righteousness are, the prophets were sure that God’s yearnings for the people of his choice are stronger still. Here is the great dilemma of the prophets, and indeed the dilemma of us all to this day. Which comes first, mercy or justice? Rashi (eleventh-century AD Jewish commentator) said that God gave ‘precedence to the rule of mercy’ and joined it ‘with the rule of justice.’ But this much is clear: when we try to estimate the depth and the persistence of God’s loving-kindness and mercy, we must first remember his passion for righteousness. His passion for righteousness is so strong that he could not be more insistent in his demand for it, but God’s persistent love for his people is more insistent still. The story of God’s people throughout the centuries is that her waywardness has been so persistent that, if even a remnant is to be preserved, God has had to show mercy more than anything else. It is important to realize that though the Hebrew chesed can be translated by loving-kindness and mercy without doing violence to the context, yet we must always beware lest we think that God is content with less than righteousness. There is no reference to any sentimental kindness, and no suggestion of mercy apart from repentance, in any case where the Hebrew original is chesed. His demand for righteousness is insistent, and it is always at the maximum intensity. The loving-kindness of God means that his mercy is greater even than that. The word stands for the wonder of his unfailing love for the people of his choice, and the solving of the problem of the relation between his righteousness and his loving-kindness passes beyond human comprehension.
Bibliography: N.H. Snaith, Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, London (1944).