The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in December 2021*
Sermon Audio: Love Mercy (Micah 6:6-8)
The story of Ruth in the Bible is a story of God’s kindness displayed in the midst of difficult circumstances. Naomi is blessed with a husband and two sons, but there is a great famine in the land of Israel, so they sojourn into the neighboring land of Moab. But there, Naomi’s life begins to unravel. First, her husband dies. Then, she sees her sons marry Moabite women—something that was frowned upon, but would have given Naomi the opportunity of welcoming grandchildren into her life, and so preserving their family line. But ten years of marriage go by, and there are no children. Finally, in a final hammer blow, both of Naomi’s sons die. Naomi is now rendered utterly destitute and is left embittered towards the Lord. She instructs her daughter-in-laws to return to their people as she intends to return to Israel. But Ruth, one of her daughter-in-laws, refuses to leave Naomi.
But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” – Ruth 1:16-17
Ruth obviously loves Naomi, perhaps is concerned that Naomi will likely die if she is left abandoned. So she commits to sticking with Naomi and becoming her caretaker. Despite herself being a widow, she chooses to care for another widow in a land wholly foreign to her. The text earlier identifies this kind of radical loyalty and love with a specific word: hesed.
May the Lord deal kindly (hesed) with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. – Ruth 1:8
There is no one English word that conveys the concept of a relationship marked by loyalty, faithfulness, love, kindness, compassion, mercy, grace, patience, commitment, all that leads to concrete actions. But, in Hebrew that word is hesed (חֶסֶד). There is no one good translation of this term in English, which is why sometimes it is translated as mercy, kindness, faithfulness, lovingkindness, or steadfast love, depending on the translation and verse.
“It expresses the moral bondage of love, the loving discharge of an admitted obligation, the voluntary acceptance of a responsibility.” – H.W. Robinson, Two Hebrew Prophets, p. 47
This concept is what Micah tells us we are to love in Micah 6:8:
With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness (hesed),
and to walk humbly with your God?
What does Micah mean when he tells us to “love hesed”? We were told that we should “do justice”, but here we are to love this characteristic. But, this characteristic is at times translated as “love”—so we are to love love? The first word for love is different than hesed and is the common word translated for “love” in the Hebrew Bible and refers to what we would generally associate with the word “love”—affection, desire, commitment. Hesed is a much bigger concept than this—which is why it is often translated as steadfast love. It is one of the four repeated pillars of God’s character in Hebrew Bible: justice, righteousness, faithfulness, and steadfast love. In fact, 75% of the times hesed occurs in the Old Testament, it is being used to describe God.
So, for us to love hesed, we must understand who God is. And this is what we are being invited to consider today: what is God like? What is God’s posture towards the world? What is His commitment to His people?
We see how central God’s steadfast love is to His character in looking at the most quoted passage in the entire Bible: Exodus 34:6-7. Here, Moses has asked God to reveal Himself to him, for Yahweh to show Moses His glory. God promises that He will make all of His goodness pass before Moses and will proclaim His name, Yahweh—which is just a way of saying: I am going to reveal who I really am to you, Moses. And here is what we get:
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. – Ex 34:6-7
When God pulls back the curtain and reveals who He is, what do we see? A God full of mercy, grace, patience, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. He keeps hesed for a thousand generations (cf. Deut 7:9), forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. The final section may catch us off guard—God won’t clear the guilty, but will visit the iniquity of His people to the third and fourth generation? How can God both be gracious and forgiving but also “by no means clear the guilty”?
First, this doesn’t mean that God will punish children for things their parents did that the children didn’t do. “Rather, it describes God’s just punishment of a given type of sin in each new generation as that sin continues to be repeated down through the generations,” (Stuart, NAC, Exodus). Ezekiel 18 makes it clear that children will not be judged for their father’s sins. But, children do learn sins from their fathers. We see this all around us. Children grow up seeing mom and dad do certain things, and they copy them. Here, God is demonstrating that children shouldn’t think that just because God judged their parents for a sin, now they can participate in the sin and not worry about being judged themselves, as if God’s storehouse of punishment has been emptied. No, God will judge them and continue to judge “to the third and fourth generation.” This doesn’t mean that after the “third or fourth” generation, God stops judging people for a certain sin. The enumeration is intended to simply show that God will continue to judge each generation for their sins.
But similarly, just as we are told that God’s hesed extends to a thousand generations, we shouldn’t assume that means at generation 1,001 God’s steadfast love ceases. No, the “to a thousand generations” is just another way of saying what the Psalms repeatedly tell us, “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations,” Ps 100:5. So both the language of “to the third and fourth generation” and “to the thousandth generation” reveal perpetual continuity—God is both just and gracious. And this is critical to understand, otherwise we may confuse God’s mercy and graciousness for mere permissiveness, for moral leniency, which actually cheapens God’s forgiveness. No, God is perfectly righteous, perfectly just, who will not bend on His standards. His forgiveness does not come because He has lowered His bar for holiness.
So why does God emphasize hesed over against His judgment? Why is it to the thousandth generation? Because if we look again at Ex 34:6 we see it is hesed, steadfast love that God abounds in, overflows with. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God abounds in wrath and judgment. Exodus 34:6 doesn’t open with “The Lord, the Lord, angry and wrathful” but “merciful and gracious.” If God’s posture towards judging sin can be measured to the “third and fourth” generation, then what the to a “thousand generations” reveal about His posture towards bestowing His steadfast love upon us? God will judge sin, but in some way, His mercy will supersede and swallow our sin up. You can sense this tension elsewhere in the Bible between God’s anger at sin, but commitment to His people:
In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. – Isa 54:8
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. – Lam 3:32-33
This is what led to the puritan Thomas Goodwin to calling God’s judgment His “strange work” but His steadfast love His “normal work.” Goodwin notices that in Jeremiah 32:41 we are told that God displays His mercy “with His whole heart,” but here in Lamentations God does not afflict “from his heart.” God afflicts, He causes grief, He punishes sin. But there is something within Him that must be overcome to do it—He doesn’t afflict “from His heart.” The prophet Ezekiel simply tells us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ez 18:23; 33:11). God will put the wicked to death, He will judge them, for all eternity. We cannot make it sound like God is unwilling to execute justice—He will consign the wicked to the eternal punishment of Hell for their sins. But, we must let the emphasis of the text stand. God abounds in hesed, or as the very conclusion of Micah tells us:
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
Remember, hesed is “the moral bondage of love, the loving discharge of an admitted obligation, the voluntary acceptance of a responsibility,” (H.W. Robinson, Two Hebrew Prophets, p. 47). This is what God abounds in; which is to say, He is committed to you because this is just who He is.
In the Gospel of John, John takes the story of Exodus 34:6-7 and maps it onto Jesus Himself by showing that the glory that Moses desired to see is now revealed in Jesus who dwells with us. John takes the two key characteristics of God’s character in Exodus 34 “steadfast love and faithfulness” and translates them into their Greek equivalent: “grace and truth”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth,” John 1:14. Take the diffuse rays of light we have seen across the Old Testament about God’s steadfast love, His faithfulness, His grace and mercy for His people, and bend them all into the prism of the incarnation, and there you got a concentrated beam of light of what the hesed of the Lord looks like. Jesus’ commitment, His bondage of love and voluntary acceptance of responsibility takes Him to the point of death, even death on a cross, to pay for His people’s debts, to secure their everlasting joy.
God’s Hesed isn’t about our worthiness
Jacob, the deceiver: “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant,” Gen 32:10.
“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 early away,” Hos 6:4.
And yet, God pledges that He will betroth Himself to Israel in “hesed” (Hos 2:19).
God’s Hesed leads Him to deliver His people (Ps 107)
Psalm 107 is this catalogue of stories of God’s people over the years and how they repeatedly find themselves in dire situations—often because of their own sin—but God continually, every time rescues them. Each time, the psalmist calls God’s people to, “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (Ps 107:8).
When they are diminished and brought low
through oppression, evil, and sorrow,
he pours contempt on princes
and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but he raises up the needy out of affliction
and makes their families like flocks.
The upright see it and are glad,
and all wickedness shuts its mouth.
Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things;
let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD.
God’s Hesed never ends
the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; – Lam 3:22
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. – Ps 100:5
26x in Psalm 136 we are reminded that God’s “steadfast love endures forever.”
“The Christian life, from one angle, is the long journey of letting our natural assumption about who God is, over many decades, fall away, being slowly replaced with God’s own insistence on who he is.” – Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, p. 151.
God Expects Hesed from Us
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
– Hos 6:6
Hesed directed towards God, directed towards others.
And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:10-13
External religious observation, devoid of the hesed of God is the Pharisee’s religion.
How then can we show hesed? (This will look different depending on what relationship we are in)
– Be merciful and gracious to others
– Slow to anger, longsuffering
– Keep your word, even at your own expense—fulfill your vows
– Commit yourself to other’s good—take action, don’t simply “feel” love, but act, especially towards the least of these.