TEXT: Psalm 136; Matthew 9:9-13
This summer we are looking at some key words in the Bible in their original language. Many of them keep their original form even in our English Bibles, like hosanna, halleluia, amen, and others. Each week I choose a scripture passage that focuses on or helps us understand the key word. The word I want to talk with you about today is hesed. It is a Hebrew word that shows up nearly 250x in the Old Testament and is often translated as ‘lovingkindness,’ a curious word that kind of mixes together ‘love’ and ‘kindness.’ Hesed corresponds to the Greek word for mercy or compassion in the New Testament. We’ll also see today that in the Bible and related to God, hesed conveys a sense of faithfulness as well, so I’ve chosen a translation today that highlights that with the choice of ‘steadfast love’ for hesed.
I want to look at Psalm 136 with you. You read part of it responsively with me as the call to worship and then I read a much longer portion of it as our first scripture reading. It recounts a long list of actions and characteristics of God, with each statement followed with the declaration that God’s “steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. Then I want to look with you at Matthew 9, where Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet in saying that God desires OUR mercy, our hesed.
As we were reminded last week, God created us to reveal His own character and works and to live out that purpose as poiema, or God’s workmanship in this world. Likewise, we are invited to share in and live out God’s steadfast love as another expression of being made in the image of God.
God’s Steadfast Love Endures Forever (Psalm 136)
Psalm 136 is a powerhouse of a song and poem about God. It names trait after trait and work after work: God is good and mighty, the miracle-working Creator of the universe from Genesis, the Redeemer and Deliverer of the Exodus. And the Psalmist is in no rush, drawing out details of each statement. God didn’t just create, but made the heavens with understanding, made the great lights, even the sun, moon, and stars, and so forth.
But do you think there’s something the Psalmist REALLY doesn’t want you to miss? After every.single.statement there is “for His steadfast love endures forever.” That ‘steadfast love’ is hesed. And it is everlasting; it endures FOREVER. That’s the faithfulness part of the word that I told you about coming out. It’s not just God is love or God loves you. It is God’s enduring, unfailing, untiring, faithful love goes on and on and on, whether in the glory of creation or in the hell of slavery in Egypt for generations. It’s a refrain worth repeating, especially for those who have struggled, doubted, been beaten down and disappointed. God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In fact, it reminds me of a simple praise chorus I learned back in high school. It is taken from Lamentations 3:22-23…
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
His mercies never come to an end
They are new every morning, new every morning
Great is Thy faithfulness, O Lord
Great is Thy faithfulness!
This is hesed!
In the biblical usage related to God, it describes more than love, kindness, and compassion. It has a faithful component to it. That’s because it is used to describe God’s covenant faithfulness. The covenant is the promise God made to Abraham, his descendants, and ultimately to us through Jesus Christ. In that original covenant God promised to give Abraham land, descendants, and blessing that would bless the nations of the earth. In a vision, God pledged to keep the covenant promises, even symbolically staking God’s name and reputation on doing so. In fact, even if Abraham broke the covenant, it was God who was on the line for keeping it. And the story of the Old Testament is exactly that: God’s unbelievable faithfulness to those promises, showing love, mercy, and compassion even when God’s people turned away from Him again and again. No wonder they sang songs about God’s hesed!
That steadfast love had no more perfect expression than in Jesus Christ, who indeed put name, reputation, and life on the line for the sake of the world. Great is God’s faithfulness, indeed!
God Desires Mercy, Not Sacrifice (Matthew 9:9-13)
I want to shift scenes quite a bit to Matthew 9. Jesus has just called the tax collector, Matthew, to follow him as a disciple. And the next thing we read is that Jesus had a meal with many tax collectors and sinners, presumably friends and guests of Matthew. Pharisees challenged Jesus about it, questioning why he would associate with sinful people like that. His response is powerful: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick… for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” In other words, Jesus came precisely for those who most need forgiveness (and know it!).
Tucked in the middle of that response Jesus tells them to “go and learn what this means” and he quotes from the Old Testament prophet, Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Hosea’s original word is hesed – God delights in faithful love and mercy rather than burnt offerings and sacrifice. Hosea goes on to describe how God’s people have fallen short of that (and perhaps Jesus is making the same point to the Pharisees!).
But do you hear the distinction? God doesn’t REQUIRE our faithfulness in order to love and show us compassion; but God does delight in it! It reminds me of the prodigal’s father, who did not require his wayward son to remain home in order to receive his blessing. But he was eager to welcome him back when he did return, showing no retribution or shame, but simply delighting that his son who was lost had been found.
So what’s my point? It’s that putting our compassion into action, as Rev. Ridgill put it a few weeks ago, is not a you should, you must, you better do this kind of thing. But it blesses others and delights God… the God who loves you steadfastly, faithfully, diligently, without fail.
I believe God is constantly showing compassion in the world because God’s steadfast love endures forever. And precisely because we are God’s workmanship, made in God’s image to live in this world, we have many God-opportunities to show compassion, mercy, and kindness ourselves.
As Christy talked with me this week about her children’s sermon, I was struck by her choice of the word ‘notice’ in regards to showing compassion. One of the best ways to recognize these God-opportunities and join in God’s hesed for the world is to NOTICE the people and situations around us. Don’t walk around head down, buried in the phone screen, or impatient to get to the next thing. Look around at the people and situations. Ask yourself what God sees. Ask God to show you what he sees in the person across from you in traffic or the burnt-out co-worker down the hall. Pray for God to open your eyes and heart to your next-door neighbor, to see past the manicured lawn (or the weed-infested yard) to the challenges, yearnings, and realities of their life. Pray for your neighbors and those around you as you move through the day. It’s amazing what God will open you up to just from saying those silent prayers.
I’d also encourage you to take some time – perhaps on this Sabbath day! (see what I did there?!) – and think back through your life to see if you can remember times you have witnessed or experienced God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. That’s the purpose of Psalm 136 in the life of God’s people – to tell the story again and again to themselves and their children of how God’s steadfast love endures. Doing that helps us not only be thankful to God, but also helps tune our eyes to notice and our hearts to love with hesed. Amen.
Some Music Used
- Glory to God Forever
- Forever Praise
- Now Thank We All Our God/Give Thanks
- Rick Bean, jazz piano
- Hear the Call of the Kingdom (Gettys)
- Great is Thy Faithfulness
- OFFERTORY: Mercy
- Lifting Those with Heavy Loads (Youngblood, Boesel)