More Than a Feeling

What we mean when we talk about love

We use the word love a lot. “I love this iced tea.” “I loved that movie.” “Will you love me forever?” We sling it at everything from our grandmothers to a good grilled cheese sandwich. On the one hand, that’s fine: Scripture uses the word love a lot, too. But there’s a danger to casual usage—as we flippantly throw it around, we gradually reduce it to a trite symbol. (Like the “heart” we hit on that Instagram post or our passing recognition that we saw someone’s latest selfie.) When we dumb love down, our diminished definition becomes a far cry from God’s heartbeat for the world.

In Scripture, love is less a passive reaction and more an active action. Hesed is a Hebrew word often translated as “love.” It shows up 247 times in the Old Testament and is characterized by faithful action, steadfast presence, and sacrificial care. Its meaning is not so much “you make me feel good,” as it is “I’ll be with you through thick and thin.” It’s a word loaded with rich meaning that’s hard to translate into English, so let’s try to unpack it.

”As we flippantly throw love around, we gradually reduce it to a trite symbol.“

 A Deep Well

The Lord is the foundation of love, hesed-style. In Exodus 34:1-35, a central passage of the Old Testament, God speaks His own name and tells us who He is. This is not someone else talking about God, but rather God describing Himself—a foundation we can build our lives upon. And at the center of His character? God says He is “abounding in love (hesed) and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6 NIV, emphasis added). Like a spring of water rushing up from the depths, bursting forth, and splashing across the land, God is a deep well that brings life to the world. He abounds in hesed—it goes all the way down and flows far and wide.

In Scripture, God is praised for His hesed more than for any other attribute. Psalm 136:1-26 praises Him 26 times for this love that endures forever (NIV). In the rest of the psalms, the word shows up over a hundred more times. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people echo His self-description—“abounding in love”—like a recurring refrain of worship. (See Neh. 9:17; Jonah 4:2; Lam. 3:22 NIV.)

Creation itself was founded on God’s hesed— (Psalm 136:5-10). It endures to a “thousandth generation” and unto forever (Deut. 7:9; Psalm 136:1-26), redeems the enslaved and oppressed, and is big enough to encompass all humanity, filling the earth (Psalm 33:5; Psalm 36:7).

Love in Action

God is the Faithful One who invites us to reflect His faithfulness by displaying loyal love to others (1 John 4:16). Indeed, God demands this of those who follow Him. He who is hesed personified wants His children to act like Him as we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8).

Even when we’ve given ourselves over to other loves, God comes after us with a relentless, unbreakable love.

So this love is more than a feeling; it always involves concrete action on behalf of another. In Genesis 40:14, upon release from prison, the cupbearer is to show hesed by putting in a good word with Pharaoh about Joseph. Bethuel displays hesed by agreeing to give his daughter Rebekah in marriage (Gen. 24:49), and the Israelite army extends it to Rahab by sparing her family (Josh. 2:12-13).

Love is more than an emotion; as author Bob Goff says, “love does.” So we should picture this love as being less like the emotional flutterings of a teenager’s heart and more like the devotion of a woman who’s spent her life caring for a brother with Down syndrome—making meals, doing laundry, and singing sweetly over him as he goes to sleep.

God makes love concrete, with specific acts of faithfulness. He is regularly described as “doing,” “showing,” or “keeping” this loyal love to His people. Even when we’ve acted like a cheating spouse, worshipping idols and giving ourselves over to other loves, God comes after us with a relentless, unbreakable love (Hos. 2:18-20). He is faithful even when His people aren’t.

So God’s love is not “I want to use you to make myself feel happy” but, rather, “I want to give Myself to you to bring you happiness.”

Jesus’ Family Tree

Ruth and David, two of Jesus’ ancestors, give us powerful pictures of faithful love in action. In the story of Ruth, hesed shows up regularly. As an act of extravagant lovingkindness, Ruth leaves her homeland to move in with her national enemies and care for Naomi, her mother-in-law. Boaz the wealthy landowner treats Ruth and Naomi with overwhelming benevolence by providing for and protecting them. And Ruth lavishes kindness on Boaz when she forsakes younger, more strapping suitors to “propose” marriage to him (Ruth 1:8; Ruth 2:20; Ruth 3:10).

”Crippled and unable to walk, he has lost everything and has nothing to bring to the table.“

And David follows in his great-grandma Ruth’s footsteps. In an oath to his best friend, he swears upon his faithfulness (hesed) to their friendship that he will always show kindness to Jonathan’s family. Once he is established on the throne, David looks high and low for anyone from the family to whom he may keep his word and show “the hesed of God” (2 Sam. 9:3; 1 Samuel 20:14-17)—and this, despite the efforts of Jonathan’s father to kill David and set their clans against one another.

David discovers Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth living in a barren land. Crippled and unable to walk, he has lost everything and has nothing to bring to the table. But David acts with faithful love, restoring to Mephibosheth his once-royal family’s land and carrying him to the king’s dining room, where he eats with David’s family the rest of his days.

This is a picture of the gospel—one of many such pictures in the Old and New Testaments—where God’s heart for restoration is made plain. Though mankind has nothing to bring to King Jesus’ table, and though we stand in Adam’s family line that has warred against God’s kingdom, we are nonetheless brought home by Christ to celebrate in the victory of His unfailing love—His hesed—and feast with Him forever.


Illustrations by Adam Cruft

Related Topics:  Gods Love

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What happens to my notes

1 Now the LORD said to Moses, Cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered.

2 So be ready by morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to Me on the top of the mountain.

3 No man is to come up with you, nor let any man be seen anywhere on the mountain; even the flocks and the herds may not graze in front of that mountain."

4 So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand.

5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD.

6 Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth;

7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."

8 Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship.

9 He said, If now I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession."

10 Then God said, Behold, I am going to make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of the LORD, for it is a fearful thing that I am going to perform with you.

11 Be sure to observe what I am commanding you this day: behold, I am going to drive out the Amorite before you, and the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite.

12 Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will become a snare in your midst.

13 But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim

14 --for you shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God--

15 otherwise you might make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they would play the harlot with their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and someone might invite you to eat of his sacrifice,

16 and you might take some of his daughters for your sons, and his daughters might play the harlot with their gods and cause your sons also to play the harlot with their gods.

17 You shall make for yourself no molten gods.

18 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in the month of Abib you came out of Egypt.

19 The first offspring from every womb belongs to Me, and all your male livestock, the first offspring from cattle and sheep.

20 You shall redeem with a lamb the first offspring from a donkey; and if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. You shall redeem all the firstborn of your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.

21 You shall work six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest.

22 You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year.

23 Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.

24 For I will drive out nations before you and enlarge your borders, and no man shall covet your land when you go up three times a year to appear before the LORD your God.

25 You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread, nor is the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover to be left over until morning.

26 You shall bring the very first of the first fruits of your soil into the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk."

27 Then the LORD said to Moses, Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel."

28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

29 It came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses' hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him.

30 So when Aaron and all the sons of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.

31 Then Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the rulers in the congregation returned to him; and Moses spoke to them.

32 Afterward all the sons of Israel came near, and he commanded them to do everything that the LORD had spoken to him on Mount Sinai.

33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.

34 But whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with Him, he would take off the veil until he came out; and whenever he came out and spoke to the sons of Israel what he had been commanded,

35 the sons of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone. So Moses would replace the veil over his face until he went in to speak with Him.

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

2 Give thanks to the God of gods, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

4 To Him who alone does great wonders, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;

5 To Him who made the heavens with skill, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;

6 To Him who spread out the earth above the waters, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;

7 To Him who made the great lights, For His lovingkindness is everlasting:

8 The sun to rule by day, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

9 The moon and stars to rule by night, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

10 To Him who smote the Egyptians in their firstborn, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

11 And brought Israel out from their midst, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

12 With a strong hand and an outstretched arm, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

13 To Him who divided the Red Sea asunder, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

14 And made Israel pass through the midst of it, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;

15 But He overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

16 To Him who led His people through the wilderness, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;

17 To Him who smote great kings, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

18 And slew mighty kings, For His lovingkindness is everlasting:

19 Sihon, king of the Amorites, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

20 And Og, king of Bashan, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

21 And gave their land as a heritage, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

22 Even a heritage to Israel His servant, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

23 Who remembered us in our low estate, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,

24 And has rescued us from our adversaries, For His lovingkindness is everlasting;

25 Who gives food to all flesh, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

17 They refused to listen, And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, Gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; And You did not forsake them.

2 He prayed to the LORD and said, Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.

22 The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail.

9 Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments;

5 He loves righteousness and justice; The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the LORD.

7 How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.

16 We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?

14 Only keep me in mind when it goes well with you, and please do me a kindness by mentioning me to Pharaoh and get me out of this house.

49 So now if you are going to deal kindly and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, let me know, that I may turn to the right hand or the left."

12 Now therefore, please swear to me by the LORD, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father's household, and give me a pledge of truth,

13 and spare my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, with all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death."

18 In that day I will also make a covenant for them With the beasts of the field, The birds of the sky And the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, And will make them lie down in safety.

19 I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion,

20 And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the LORD.

8 And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me.

20 Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, May he be blessed of the LORD who has not withdrawn his kindness to the living and to the dead." Again Naomi said to her, The man is our relative, he is one of our closest relatives."

10 Then he said, May you be blessed of the LORD, my daughter. You have shown your last kindness to be better than the first by not going after young men, whether poor or rich.

3 The king said, Is there not yet anyone of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?" And Ziba said to the king, There is still a son of Jonathan who is crippled in both feet."

14 If I am still alive, will you not show me the lovingkindness of the LORD, that I may not die?

15 You shall not cut off your lovingkindness from my house forever, not even when the LORD cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth."

16 So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, May the LORD require it at the hands of David's enemies."

17 Jonathan made David vow again because of his love for him, because he loved him as he loved his own life.

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