Throughout Psalm 107, which offers a retelling of the history of the people of Israel, the psalmist repeated two lines over and over:
“Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
“Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.””
The key term here is “steadfast love,” which in Hebrew is hesed. This is often translated as “mercy” in our English-language Bibles, in large part because the original Hebrew was first translated into the Greek word eleos in the Septuagint (the Greek-language scriptures used in Jesus’ time). Scholars note there can be vast differences in meaning between translating hesed as “mercy” or “loyalty.” These are two quite different kinds of divine love.
Rabbi Harold M. Kamsler, who lives in Israel, speaks of hesed in the context of Psalm 136, but his comments apply equally well to Psalm 107:
“These translations use HESED as a single, one-way rather than reciprocal relationship. HESED, however, describes a mutual relationship between man and between God. Translating it as `mercy,’ `compassion,’ or `love’ destroys the concept of mutuality. (For a complete discussion see, Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible [Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1967]).”
As noted in the Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, there are two distinct kinds of hesed [editor’s warning: male-specific language is used]:
(1) HESED of man–kindness of men towards men, in doing favors and benefits; kindness extended to the lowly, needy and miserable; mercy. (rarely) affection or love of Israel to God, piety; lovely appearance.
(2) HESED of God–redemption from enemies and troubles; in preservation of life from death; in quickening of spiritual life; in redemption from sin; in keeping the covenants, with Abraham; with Moses and Israel.
To put this another way, we can refer to God’s love and easily get all touchy-feely about it, how much God cares for us creatures, and how much God is really like a compassionate parent (yes, even a Heavenly Father, if you want to put it that way). And, of course, there’s nothing theologically wrong with viewing God that way–in fact, we Christians have an abundance of sources we can draw on. But is that what the psalmist is saying here and in related psalms? Perhaps hesed as loyalty offers a more fruitful approach, certainly a path that is a bit less traditional.
That God is loyal to humankind (faithful is another way to put it) connects with the concept of grace. What God has done, is doing, and will do doesn’t depend on human action. It’s all about God. Of course, that makes us humans uncomfortable because we tend to want everything to be about us–our needs and desires, in particular.
This is all a very short step to the counsel of the apostle Paul, who used the Greek word pistis on numerous occasions. Paul referred to the “pistis Iesou Christou” in Galatians and Romans. A growing number of scholars contend that the context of both letters calls for translating that word as “faithfulness”: God in Christ was being faithful to the promises to humankind made originally through Abraham that all the world would be blessed. This is “faith” as a verb not a noun.
We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. –Romans 4:9b-17 NRSV
I’ve used the NRSV here, primarily because I generally prefer that translation. But the discussion of pistis Iesou Christou is one time when the King James Bible is more helpful, as it was completed before the widespread influence of Protestant Reformers (particularly Martin Luther) who introduced Western introspection into the thought of Apostle Paul. The single, most influential article on this topic, by Krister Stendahl, can be found in PDF format here.
Many centuries after Paul’s letters were written, the theological meaning was changed so that this became about believers having faith in Christ (albeit made possible by grace), which effected salvation–rather than it being the faithfulness of Christ (to God’s promises made through Abraham). This is a subject I pursued at some length in my own book, What Was Paul Thinking? It represents a radically new approach to Paul, generally known as the New Perspective on Paul. I highly recommend following this link to an abundance of online scholarly resources about this topic.
If nothing else, I suppose, this discussion highlights the effect of translating what we accept as scripture from one language to another–an imprecise art form at best. Translations, of course, come and go and can be dependent on cultural and institutional forces.
But this we know: God’s hesed endures forever.
My latest book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is available from Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. To celebrate the first anniversary of its publication, I have reduced the price temporarily: $6.99 for the print edition and $1.99 for the Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions