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April 17th, 2019

"I am hesed"

From: "Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness"
p. 84-87

"I am hesed [hasid]."
Jeremiah 3:12

The word hesed occurs only some twenty-eight times in all the prophetic literature. (In contrast, it occurs twenty-six times in Psalm 136 alone!) The temptation might be to conclude that the prophets are less about God's lovingkindness and more about his judgement and anger. This kind of thinking has led to false differentiation between the angry God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New. In reality the prophets provide their own unique contribution to our understanding of the word hesed, which was born out of the testing ground of six grueling centuries of the prophetic era (1020-400 BC). 

In the Torah we discovered the definitive experience of God's hesed: God telling us who he is. In the historical books we witnessed the heartbreak associated with the violation of the hope of hesed. In the Psalms we listened to the unique resonance of the hesed our hearts were created and tuned to sing to. In the Prophets we meet the One who is himself hesed (Jer 3:12).

The Prophets provide a portrait of the One who relentlessly reaches out to his people, who sends prophets like Jeremiah who weep and warn and plead with the people for decades before finally allowing the consequences of their sin to come into effect. It is the ultimate act of hesed, the final effort to redeem and restore his stubborn people, to whom he wants to open the door of his life.

Jeremiah's ministry extended over the reign of five kings, only one of whom (Josiah) actually listened to him. For over forty years he pleaded with the people to return. In Jeremiah chapters 3 and 4 the call to return echoes five times. That is all they need to do: simply come back to the One who is ready to forgive and restore and generously reward. But the people stubbornly refuse. Jeremiah is ridiculed. They compose derisive songs about him. His life is threatened over and over again. Ultimately, he is destroyed by the destruction he prophesied and is forced to witness the unthinkable devastation of the temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC (Jer 52; Dan 5). He remains behind in Jerusalem as the exiles depart. It will be seventy years before the people return and rebuild the temple.

Jeremiah does not simply use the word hesed more frequently than the other prophets; his writings also display many of the unique facets we have seen of the word:

-In Jeremiah 32:18, we hear the precise echo of Exodus 34:5-7 (see also Jer 16:10-13).
-In Jeremiah 33:11, we have an example of the formula of everlasting refrain.
-In two passages, Jeremiah 9:24 and 16:5, we see the force of hesed's unique linguistic gravity as the words justice, righteousness, and compassion are drawn to it.
-In Lamentations 3:22, we see hesed functioning as the unique turning point between lament and praise (compare Ps 13:5; 69:13, 16).
-In Jeremiah 2:2, we see the fragileness of human hesed.

Throughout his writings we see the heartbreaking effect of the violation of the expectation, based in hope, that God's gracious hesed will be reciprocated by his people. Sadly, it never is.

This brings us finally to the ultimate expression of hesed in the writings of Jeremiah, and some would say in the entire Hebrew Bible. Given the fact that God has reached out to the people through his faithful, weeping prophet, that he has lovingly called out to them to return, that he has threatened inevitable destruction as the consequence of their stubborn disbelief, the hesed of God leaves him with only one question: he will keep the covenant they broke. In fact, God will establish a new covenant with both Israel and Judah. He will put his teaching in them; he himself will write it on their stubborn hearts. He will forgive and forget their sin (Jer 31:31-34).

As a visible, living, breathing incarnation of his hesed, God will send his "Righteous Branch." His name will be "The LORD Is Our Righteousness" (Jer 23:5-6). The Lord will be their righteousness - not their observances, not their meticulous "obediences." His righteousness will be given as a gift to those who have no right to expect anything from him. He will give them everything, most especially himself. He will do justice by loving and demonstrating hesed. And they and we will look back on all the consequences of our sin and see that his loving allowance of suffering for sin was perhaps the greatest expression of his hesed. Then all the suffering, all the confusion, all the tears will give birth to a new, unheard-of boast in Israel. This new exclamation will not involve the people's possession of the temple, nor their wisdom, strength, or wealth.

But the one who boasts should boast in this:
that he understands and knows me - 
that I am the LORD, showing hesed,
justice, and righteousness on the earth,
for I delight in these things. (Jer 9:24)

The context of Jeremiah specifically and the Prophets in general is one of stubborn disbelief and disobedience among God's people and of his persistent reaching out to them because of his hesed. In light of our inability to keep any of the covenants, God will graciously grant to us a new covenant, based solely on his faithfulness. That covenant will come into effect and be sustained by means of a person identified in Jeremiah as the Righteous Branch. We see hesed incarnated through the One who says that he himself is hesed.

In our New Testament way of thinking we call this new covenant a covenant of grace: God's Riches At Christ's Expense. At least that is the way I learned it in Sunday school. Like the covenant with Abraham, this new covenant is unconditional. It is not like the covenant that was made through Moses. Jeremiah 31:32 point out the contrast. This covenant will be actualized by God himself. He will place the teaching in our hearts. He will forgive and forget our sin (Jer 31:34). The context of the new covenant is clearly a product of God's lovingkindness. It is eternal and forever to be relied on.

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