By Hugh Farquhar
The Psalm prescribed in the Lectionary for this Sunday is Psalm 107. It begins on a high note: “O give thanks, for God is gracious, God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
Among my most prized possessions is a gift that was given to me by a student in a Hebrew Scriptures Course I was teaching who specialized in miniatures. It shows a Rabbi, behind a pulpit, dressed in his prayer shawl, reading from the sacred text.
The detail is amazing, and this image is contained within half an eggshell. Across the bottom of the eggshell is written in tiny Hebrew letters “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.”
The “steadfast love” attributed to God is a common phrase in the Psalms, and it both opens and closes Psalm 107. It is an English rendering of a Hebrew word חֶסֶד (chesed). The “ch” is hard and guttural as in “loch.” The emphasis is on the middle “e.” The “ed’ is pronounced as in “headed.” Ches-ed.
As a student of biblical Hebrew, I have learned that many Hebrew words contain nuances that are difficult to translate into English without writing an essay. Chesed is one of them. It is found 250 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and sometimes God is said to be abounding in it.
Often it is translated “loving kindness,” but that does not convey the intensity of its meaning. The best attempt to translate the word ‘chesed” accurately is “steadfast love,” which is how the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates it. And so it is in Psalm 107.
It is a relational, covenant word that refers to the loyal love and faithfulness that binds two parties together. When one shows “chesed” to another, one is not motivated by legal obligation, but by a free offering of deep affection and solid commitment.
Chesed love is dependable and unwavering. In Hebrew it also conveys the mood of keenness and eagerness to love unconditionally, which moves the word close to the word for love, “agape,” in the New Testament.
Such was the Hebrews’ experience of God reflected in the Psalm. The fundamental truth about God to which they clung was that God was a lover, and God’s chesed had been demonstrated by the fact that not even all Israel’s persistent waywardness had ever quenched it.
At times they ignored, turned their back on, and disregarded God, and there were consequences for that, but the light that was never extinguished was the truth expressed in this psalm: God’s steadfast love never wavers, and as my miniature Rabbi proclaims, “is from everlasting to everlasting.”
Christians sometimes buy into the notion that the Old Testament God is a God of law and judgement while the New Testament God is a God of love and grace. This is a simplistic view of the Bible and is basically inaccurate. Both Testaments venture down paths that leave us uncomfortable and challenge any sentimental ideas we might have about who God is and what God calls us to be.
But at the heart of both Testaments is the message that God loves us from our beginning, through to our end, and in our life beyond. And so, I sing with these musicians of old, “O give thanks, for God is gracious, God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, N.B. For the past twenty-eight years he has been an Instructor in Biblical Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, N.S.