The Word in the Wings
The Word in the Wings > From the study: love that reaches from heaven
From the study: love that reaches from heaven
By: KAYA WEAVER
Glorify Dance Theatre has begun work on a new ballet, Chesed, that will premiere this March. The ballet explores different facets of the meaning of “chesed” to explore how humans relate to God and to each other through generous, loyal love. For the next few weeks on The Word in the Wings, we’re looking closely at a few passages of Scripture where the word “chesed” occurs to learn about how this kind of love works and what God intends it to accomplish.
God’s love is expectant
Whenever human partners are involved, ḥesed entails the risk of betrayal. The asker is vulnerable, dependent on the person they must trust to do kindness. Rahab initiates ḥesed with the Israelite spies by hiding them from the king of Jericho, protecting them when they are vulnerable (Joshua 2:1-14). Rahab’s ḥesed makes her vulnerable in turn since without the spies’ reciprocal ḥesed of sparing her and her family she will die in the Israelite invasion of Jericho This accords with Sakenfeld’s argument that when ḥesed is requested it is an essential need, not a special privilege (p. 44).
Though God does not ask Israel to show ḥesed insofar as God doesn’t have essential needs that depend on creatures, God extends ḥesed for Israel when the people need deliverance, and God becomes invested in the relationship. In Exodus 20 God commands Israel,
5 You shall not bow to them [idols] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to those who love me and keep my commandments. (New Revised Standard Version; see also Deuteronomy 5:9-10)
God desires a response from Israel that demonstrates their complete commitment to Yahweh over other gods. This commandment establishes the expectation that Israel will meet God’s ḥesed with corresponding “love and obedience” (Sakenfeld, p. 11). When God initiates ḥesed with Israel, God also becomes vulnerable to the betrayal of idolatry (Heschel, p. 62).
The prophet Hosea conveys God’s feeling of betrayal when Israel neglects these actions:
6:4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early…
7 But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. (NRSV)
In contrast to God’s ever-enduring ḥesed, the ḥesed of God’s people compares to the transient clouds and dew that last only a few hours into the day. God expresses despondency over Israel’s failure to respond with love; even in God’s freedom and self-sufficiency, God longs to see Israel reflect God’s own committed love instead of spurning it.
If ḥesed is a relationship based on reciprocal kindness and mutual commitment, how can God sustain ḥesed with human partners who repeatedly reject God and neglect reciprocal commitment?
God’s love abounds
In 2 Samuel 7, God expresses the dynamics of commitment that exist between Yahweh and King David. God’s commitment is unconditional, yet it accounts for the human partner’s unreliability, drawing on both justice and mercy in the divine character. This passage conveys the unique nature of divine ḥesed as built firmly on Yahweh’s activity.
David settles into his own newly-built house and experiences “rest from all his enemies around him” (2 Samuel 7:1, NRSV). Noting that he has built himself “a house of cedar,” David confides to the prophet Nathan that it seems inappropriate for the ark of Yahweh to continue residing in an impermanent tent structure (2 Samuel 7:2). It’s implied that David is considering building a house for Yahweh as he’s done for himself.
4 And Yahweh’s word came that very night to Nathan saying,
5 “Go, tell my servant David, thus says Yahweh: Are you the one who will build me a house to dwell in?
6 For I haven’t dwelt in a house of cedar from the day I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt until this very day, and I’ve been going about in a tent and a tabernacle.
7 In all the time I’ve been going about with all the children of Israel, have I ever spoken to one of the leaders whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?
Yahweh objects to David’s implied intention, saying that God has never asked anyone to build a house of cedar for the ark. God doesn’t really need a secure shelter that David could provide with his building materials and workers.
8 But now, thus you will say to my servant David–thus says Yahweh of hosts: I took you from the field, from looking after the flock, to be a leader over my people Israel.
9 And I’ve been with you wherever you go, and I’ve cut off your enemies from before you, and I will make for you a great name, like the great names that are in the land.
10 And I will set a place for my people Israel, and I will plant them and they will dwell under it and no longer be troubled, and the children of injustice won’t do them wrong again, as it was in the beginning.
11 And from the days when I commanded judges over my people Israel, I will give you rest from your enemies, and Yahweh says to you that Yahweh will make a house for you.
Although David has built his own “house of cedar,” God is the one who helped David defeat Israel’s enemies in battle and generated a reputation for the king of Israel. Perhaps David is thinking in terms of interpersonal ḥesed; since God, out of kindness, has provided security for David, David feels a loving obligation to secure a place for Yahweh’s name among God’s people by building a temple. But instead of David making a house for Yahweh, Yahweh will make a house for David. The God who has already given so much for David will not receive payment in kind but will continue giving even more.
12 When your days are fulfilled and you’ve laid down with your ancestors, then I will raise up your seed after you who comes out from yourself, and I will establish his kingdom.
13 He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
God promises to provide David with security for his family line through offspring who will also rule on David’s throne. This offspring of David, rather than David himself, will be the one to build a house for Yahweh’s name. In other words, Yahweh builds a house for God’s name by means of making a house for David. Yahweh’s dwelling is secured through divine initiative and activity and through human partnership that is built on Yahweh’s persistent generosity.
14 I will become his father, and he will become my son, such that when he does iniquity I will judge him with the rod of men and with human blows.
15 But my ḥesed I will not take away from him as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you.
16 And surely your house and your kingdom are forever; your throne will be established forever.”
17 All these words and this whole vision–thus Nathan told David.
Yahweh defines the relationship between God and David’s offspring in terms of a disciplining parent and child; Yahweh commits to ensuring that David’s offspring learns right from wrong. To fully define the intent of this discipline, God promises never to take away God’s ḥesed, God’s commitment of loyal love, from David’s offspring. This contrasts with how God relates to Saul, who is king before David but whose dynasty does not continue to the next generation. While God makes the rule of Saul’s house temporary, God promises that David’s house will “be established forever” on the throne of Israel.
The balance of discipline for wrongdoing and unconditional commitment, as well as the contrast between David and Saul, highlights the powerfully enduring nature of God’s ḥesed. The example of Rahab showed how a relationship of ḥesed is established through reciprocal acts of kindness, and God’s ultimate rejection of Saul suggests that some level of mutuality is necessary to sustain ḥesed between God and a human partner. Biblical scholar Stephen B. Chapman explains the contrast between David and Saul in terms of the character of each king’s Yahweh-worship; Saul repeatedly “relies on ritual” as a tool for military and state aims, whereas David relates to God as a “a living presence who remains unpredictable (even if one has been obedient) and is characteristically merciful in spite of one’s disobedience” (pp. 56-57). God’s assurance of discipline for David’s offspring, accompanying God’s promise to never remove ḥesed from him, demonstrates this dynamic nature of the living God, which makes space for God to actively work with human partners towards fulfilling their obligation of righteousness toward God.
God’s love intervenes
Psalm 103 offers several images for how God’s ḥesed functions to intervene in the usual logic of reciprocity, where betrayal by one party would end a relationship of ḥesed.
1 Of David; Let my being bless Yahweh, and all my inward parts, his holy name.
2 Let my being bless Yahweh, and don’t forget all his benefits,
3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your being from the pit, who crowns you with ḥesed and compassion,
5 who satisfies your witness with good things so your youth is renewed like an eagle.
6 Yahweh is working righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.
The psalmist’s poetic lyrics praise Yahweh’s dynamic activity that sustains life or delivers humanity out of death into life.
7 He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the children of Israel.
8 Yahweh is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in ḥesed.
9 He does not contend in perpetuity, and he does not keep forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor has he requited us according to our iniquities.
The psalmist meditates on God’s self-revelation to Moses and the rest of God’s people as they journey out of Egypt. The psalmist paraphrases the summary of God’s character from Exodus 34:6-7, focusing on the positive interpretation. Although God’s righteous anger over human sin is in view (Brueggemann & Bellinger, p. 442), the psalmist reframes it in terms of how fleeting God’s anger is compared to God’s patience and abundant love.
11 For as high as the heavens are over the land, so great is his ḥesed over those who fear him.
The spatial image of the distance between the land and the heavens, or sky, suggests an unattainable height. Since the heavens represent the space where God dwells, and the land represents the space humanity inhabits, the image points to a vast distance between God and humanity. But God’s ḥesed is great enough to span this distance and sustain contact between humanity and God.
12 As far as the sunrise is from the sunset, he has distanced our sins from us.
Here is another spatial image of great distance: the place in the east where the sun rises is as far as the eye can see from the place in the west where the sun sets. The psalmist employs this image to convey that God has put our sins out of our sight. This simile could also take on a temporal sense: as the sun sets on yesterday and we move into today, God leaves our sins behind in the past.
13 As a father has compassion on his children, Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.
This simile recalls God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:14, that God will relate to David’s offspring as father to son. In this line of poetry, the psalmist brings together the image of disciplining father with God’s assurance of unconditional commitment; the father who disciplines his son does so as an intervention to rescue the relationship that could be sundered if the son continues in wrongful or hateful action that disregards the father’s goodness.
The Hebrew word riḥam, “have compassion,” shares a root with the word reḥem, “womb” (BDB, p. 933), evoking motherly love alongside fatherly love in Psalm 103:13. In this vein, commentators Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr. compare God’s love in this psalm to “the love of a mother for her child” (p. 441).
The connection between the Hebrew words for “womb” and “compassion” suggests that a parent who has compassion on their children shares their emotional experience in a way that reflects the shared physical experience of a mother and her unborn child. The child’s body is not just close to the mother’s but is enclosed within her body in the womb; in some ways the child is part of the mother herself. If a compassionate parent feels with their child as though they are part of themselves, God’s concern for covenant partners is as indelible as God’s self-regard.
Julian of Norwich — medieval anchoress, visionary, and theological writer — conceives of God’s embracing, abounding love in terms of maternal care. Specifically, her view of “the body of Christ” as that of “a mother who encloses us in herself, who feeds us, who holds out her arms to us, who does not get angry and does not judge” (Lamm, p. 307) connects the compassionate actions of God-incarnate with a maternal love that is intimate, generous, and secure in its capacity to sustain the relationship through forgiveness of wrong.
Because God is compassionate, God feels our condition along with us and is stirred to action on our behalf (Bible Project, 00:11:00-00:12:00). The three similes in Psalm 103:11-13 all describe what God does instead of requiting humans according to each one’s wrongdoing. God’s forgiveness intervenes to maintain a relationship with humanity even though such boundless mercy goes against the logic of reciprocity that typically undergirds ḥesed.
14 For he knows our form, remembering that we are dust.
15 A man is like grass in his days; as the field blossoms, so he blossoms.
16 For a wind blows over it and it is not there, and its place is no longer acquainted with it.
In feeling our condition as we do, God recognizes humanity’s mortality. In Genesis 2:17, God commands the human, “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (NRSV). The human and his wife reject God’s instruction and eat of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3:6), and as a result God appoints an intimidating creature “to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:23, NRSV). From this point forward in the biblical narrative, human mortality is a symptom of rejecting God. When the psalmist says that God acts because God knows our mortality, they are saying that God intervenes because we’ve rejected God’s generous love.
17 But Yahweh’s ḥesed is from eternity to eternity over those who fear him, and his righteousness is for the children’s children
18 to those who keep his covenant and those who remember his precepts, to do them.
19 Yahweh has established his throne in heaven and his reign in all his dominion.
In contrast to humans’ unreliability and mortality, God’s love is everlasting. Humanity declines to meet God’s ḥesed with corresponding commitment, so God reaches out again to re-initiate a relationship with us. Since we don’t extend loyalty to meet God halfway, God’s loyalty reaches all the way to us. God leaves our sin behind us in the past to renew our opportunity to relate to God through righteousness.
God’s ḥesed is a love so enduring it takes initiative not only to begin a relationship but to restore a relationship broken by humans’ rejection. Though the expected order of ḥesed suggests that one partner’s disloyalty would end the relationship, God creates new pathways for us to participate in restoring right relationships and enjoying eternal life with God.
20 Bless Yahweh, his messengers, warriors of strength who do what he says to heed the sound of his words.
21 Bless Yahweh, all his hosts, his servants who do his pleasure.
22 Bless Yahweh, all his works in every place in his dominion; let my being bless Yahweh.
Because of the extent of God’s mercy in restoring humanity to life through forgiveness and loyal love, Yahweh is worthy of praise!
Biblical quotations are my own translation except where otherwise noted.
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