The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (http://www.amazon.com/Theological-Wordbook-Old-Testament-2-vol/dp/0802486312) is a great Bible study resource as illustrated by this article on the word the ESV translates "steadfast love."
698 חסד (ḥsd) I. Assumed root of the following.
698a חֶסֶד (ḥesed) kindness, loving-kindness, mercy and similar words (KJV). (RSV usually has steadfast love, occasionally loyalty, NASB lovingkindness, kindness, love, NIV unfailing love.)
698b חָסִיד (ḥāsîd) holy one, godly, saint. RSV faithful, godly one, loyal. NIV, saint, godly.
698c חֲסִידָה (ḥăsîdâ) stork (perhaps because it was thought to be kind to its young).
For centuries the word ḥesed was translated with words like mercy, kindness, love. The LXX usually uses eleos “mercy,” and the Latin misericordia. The Targum and Syriac use frequently a cognate of ṭob. The root is not found in Akkadian or Ugaritic. The lexicons up through BDB and GB (which said Liebe, Gunst, Gnade, love, goodness, grace) are similar. KB however is the “mutual liability of those … belonging together.”
In 1927 Nelson Glueck, shortly preceded by I. Elbogen, published a doctoral dissertation in German translated into English by A. Gottschalk, Hesed in the Bible with an introduction by G. A. LaRue which is a watershed in the discussion. His views have been widely accepted. In brief, Glueck built on the growing idea that Israel was bound to its deity by covenants like the Hittite and other treaties. He held that God is pictured as dealing basically in this way with Israel. The Ten Commandments, etc. were stipulations of the covenant, Israel’s victories were rewards of covenant keeping, her apostasy was covenant violation and God’s hesed was not basically mercy, but loyalty to his covenant obligations, a loyalty which the Israelites should also show. He was followed substantially by W. F. Lofthouse (1933), N. H. Snaith (1944), H. W. Robinson (1946), Ugo Masing (1954), and many others.
There were others, however, who disagreed. F. Assension (1949) argued for mercy, basing his views on the OT versions. H. J. Stoebe (doctoral dissertation 1951, also articles in 1952 VT and in THAT) argued for good-heartedness, kindness. Sidney Hills and also Katherine D. Sakenfeld (The Meaning of Ḥesed in the Hebrew Bible, a Nevi Inquiry), held in general that ḥesed denotes free acts of rescue or deliverance which in prophetic usage includes faithfulness. For this historical survey and references see Sakenfeld pp. 1–13 (hereafter called Sak.); also LaRue in the book by Glueck (here called G.)
The writer would stress that the theological difference is considerable whether the Ten Commandments are stipulations to a covenant restricted to Israel to which God remains true and to which he demands loyalty, or whether they are eternal principles stemming from God’s nature and his creation to which all men are obligated and according to which God will judge in justice or beyond that will show love, mercy and kindness.
On the meaning of our word ḥesed it is convenient to start, as G. and Sak. have done, with the secular usage, i.e. between man and man. Glueck argues that ḥesed is practiced in an ethically binding relationship of relatives, hosts, allies, friends and rulers. It is fidelity to covenantal obligations real or implied. Sakenfeld goes over the same material and concludes that indeed a relationship is present (love almost necessitates a subject-object relation) but that the ḥesed is freely given. “Freedom of decision” is essential. The help is vital, someone is in a position to help, the helper does so in his own freedom and this “is the central feature in all the texts” (p. 45).
Glueck certainly seems to find obligation where there is none. Stoebe gives an extensive treatment of ḥesed in THAT (pp. 599–622) and remarks (p. 607) that I Kgs is an instance where ḥesed is unexpected. Benhaded was defeated. He could claim no obligation. He hoped for mercy, kindness. Stoebe cites the men of Jabesh also (II Sam 2:5). Saul had died in defeat. The care of Saul’s body seems clearly to have been a free act of kindness.
Also Laban’s willingness to send Rebekah to Isaac was not from any covenant obligation (though G. cites the appeal to providence in v. 50). It was a kindness to a long-lost relative. He could easily have said “no.” The beautiful story of Ruth is tarnished by considering Ruth’s action as motivated by contractual obligations. The Lord had no obligation to get the widows new husbands in Moab (1:8–9). Ruth went with Naomi from pure love. Boaz recognized her action as goodness in 2:11–12 and calls it ḥesed in 3:10. Even Glueck inclined toward kindness here. The action of Rahab was kindness (Josh 2:12). Her loyalty would naturally and legally be to her king and city. The angels in Gen 19:19 were hardly bound by covenant obligation—or any obligation—to Lot. Indeed the basis of their action is said in v. 16 to have been their compassion (cf. Isa 63:9). In Gen 21:23 Abimelech cites his previous ḥesed as grounds for making the covenant with Abraham which required further ḥesed. Glueck makes something of I Sam 20:8, 14, 15 where David and Jonathan swore friendship. This covenant, says G. was the basis of the ḥesed. Here, perhaps, is G’s major mistake. He forgets that covenants arise on the basis of a relationship and that the obligations are often deeper than the covenant. Verse 17 shows that Jonathan’s love moved him to make the covenant. When Jonathan died, David lamented for him out of love, not obligation (II Sam 1:26). David’s ḥesed to Saul’s house is said to be for the sake of Jonathan, not because of a legal obligation (II Sam 9:1, 3, 7). Glueck seems to miss the mark widely when he says it was neither grace nor mercy; it was brotherliness required by covenantal loyalty. Such a view has failed to see the depth of David’s character. Stoebe calls it the spontaneous proof of a cordial friendly attitude (herzlich freundlich Gesinnung). Other examples must be omitted, but they are similar. All parties agree that in Est 2:9, 17 the word is used of favor, kindness, but some try to make this usage unusual being post-exilic.
When we come to the ḥesed of God, the problem is that of course God was in covenant relation with the patriarchs and with Israel. Therefore his ḥesed can be called covenant ḥesed without contradiction. But by the same token God’s righteousness, judgment, fidelity, etc. could be called covenant judgment, etc. The question is, do the texts ascribe his ḥesed to his covenants or to his everlasting love’? Is not ḥesed as Dom Sorg observed (see Bibliography) really the OT reflex of “God is love”?
A prominent early usage is in God’s declaration of his own character: Ex 20:6 parallel to Deut 5:10 and also Ex 34:6–7. These passages are discussed by G., Sak. and Stoebe from the viewpoint of documentary division first. But aside from this Sak. emphasizes the freedom of God’s ḥesed. in all these passages. She notes the proximity to words for mercy in Ex 34:6–7 and remarks that it is “this aspect of God’s ḥesed (as his mercy) which takes on greater importance in exilic and postexilic writing”—of which she envisions a good bit—(p. 119). However, she considers Ex 20 and Deut 5 as in a “covenantal context” (p. 131) and holds that “those who are loyal (loving) will receive ḥesed while those who are disloyal (hating) will be punished” (p. 131). She is led into this covenantal emphasis by the prior idea that since secular treaties speak of love, brotherhood and friendship between suzerain and vassal, that therefore these are covenant words and show that a covenant was at least implied. This view forgets that love is a covenant word because kings borrowed it from general use to try to render covenants effective. They tried to make the vassal promise to act like a brother, friend and husband. It does not follow that God’s love is merely a factor in a covenant; rather the covenant is the sign and expression of his love. McCarthy more acceptably says, “the form of the Sinai story in Ex 19–24 which is reflected in the text without later additions does not bear out the contention that the story reflects an organization according to covenant form.” His view is that the power and glory of Yahweh and the ceremonies conducted effected the union “more than history, oath, threat and promise” (McCarthy, D. J., Treaty and Covenant, Pontif. Bib. Inst., ed. of 1963, p. 163).
The text itself of Ex 20 and Deut 5 simply says that God’s love (ḥesed) to those who love him (ʾāhab) is the opposite of what he will show to those who hate him. The context of these commands is surely God’s will for all mankind, although his special care, indeed his covenant, is with Israel. That ḥesed refers only to this covenant and not to the eternal divine kindness back of it, however, is a fallacious assumption.
The text of Ex 34:6–7 is fuller and more solemn, coming as it does after the great apostasy. It was a tender revelation of God’s self to Moses. Sakenfeld is right here “that forgiveness must always have been latent [at least!] in the theological usage of ḥesed” even before the exile (p. 119). The association with divine mercy is surely patent in the words and in the context of the occasion of the apostasy. The word raḥûm with its overtones of mother love, and ḥannûn “grace” combined with the phrase “slow to anger” all emphasize the character of God who is love. He is great in ḥesed and ʾemet (of which more later). He keeps ḥesed for thousands which is immediately related to forgiveness of sin. That all this simply says that God keeps his oath seems trivial. The oath is kept because it is the loving God who speaks the oath.
Sakenfeld nicely brings together the several passages dependent on Ex 34:6–7. They are: Num 14:18–19; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8 (cf. 9 and 10); Joel 2:13; and Jon 4:2. Of these passages, only Ps 86:15 includes the word ʾemet after ḥesed. They all speak of the love of the Lord and some mention his forgiveness. None specifically ground the ḥesed in covenant.
The phrase ḥesed and ʾemet “truth” mentioned above is thought by some to argue for the concept of loyalty or fidelity in ḥesed. It occurs some twenty-five times with about seven more in less close connection. Most agree it is a hendiadys and one noun serves to describe the other. Therefore the phrase means “faithful love” or “true kindness” or the like. Kindness and faithfulness is a fair equivalent hendiadys in English. The combination hardly seems to further the idea of fidelity to a covenant in the word ḥesed. If the term already meant that, why would the qualifier “faithful” be added? Usually, as in the usage of ḥesed alone, there is no covenant expressed to which fidelity is due. It is alleged in I Kgs 3:3, but although God’s ḥesed to David in making his son king was indeed according to covenant; it was also according to his love which lay back of his covenant. The text does not ascribe it to covenant loyalty. Stoebe points out in Ps 89 that the covenant of v. 3 is based on the ḥesed of v. 2 [H 4 and 3] (THAT, p. 615).
Another pair of nouns is covenant, bĕrît, and ḥesed used seven times with some other instances of use in near contexts. The main instance is Deut 7:9, 12 which has echoes in I Kgs 8:23; II Chr 6:14; Neh 1:5; 9:32; and Dan 9:4. It itself is called by Stoebe (THAT, p. 616) a paraphrase of Ex 34:6. He remarks that Deut 7:8 already bases all God’s favor on his love. If this pair be translated “covenantal love” or “covenant and love,” it should be remembered that the love is back of the covenant. This point is illustrated by Jer 2:2 where the ḥesed of Israel’s youth is likened to the love of a bride. The love of a bride is the basis of the promise, not the result.
It should be mentioned that ḥesed is also paired about fifteen times with nouns of mercy like raḥûm, e.g. Ps 103:4; Zech 7:9 (and cf. Ex 34:6–7 above), ḥēn, e.g. Gen 19:19; Ps 109:12, tanḥûm, Ps 94:18–19, etc. These instances usually stand as paired nouns not really in an adjectival relation. The implication is that ḥesed is one of the words descriptive of the love of God.
So, it is obvious that God was in covenant relation with Israel, also that he expressed this relation in ḥesed, that God’s ḥesed was eternal (Note the refrain of Ps 136)—though the ḥesed of Ephraim and others was not (Hos 6:4). However, it is by no means clear that ḥesed necessarily involves a covenant or means fidelity to a covenant. Stoebe argues that it refers to an attitude as well as to actions. This attitude is parallel to love, raḥûm goodness, ṭôb, etc. It is a kind of love, including mercy, ḥannûn, when the object is in a pitiful state. It often takes verbs of action, “do,” “keep,” and so refers to acts of love as well as to the attribute. The word “lovingkindness” of the KJV is archaic, but not far from the fulness of meaning of the word.
חָסִיד (ḥāsîd). Holy one, saint. Whether God’s people in the OT were called ḥāsîd because they were characterized by ḥesed (as seems likely) or were so called because they were objects of God’s ḥesed may not be certain. The word is used thirty-two times, twenty-five of them in the Pss. It is used in sing.. and pl. Once, Ps 16:16, it refers to the Holy One to come. The word became used for the orthodox party in the days of the Maccabeans.
Bibliography: Dentan, R. C., “The Literary Affinities of Exodus 34:6ff.,” VT 13:34–51. Freedman, D. N., “God Compassionate and Merciful,” Western Watch 6:6–24. Glueck, Nelson, esed in the Bible, trans. by A. Gottschalk, Hebrew Union College Press, 1967. Kuyper, Lester J., “Grace and Truth,” Reformed Review 16:1–16. Sakenfeld, Katherine D., The Meaning of esed in the Hebrew Bible: A New Inquiry, Scholars Press, 1978. Snaith, N.H., The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, Schocken, 1964, pp. 94–130. Sorg, Dom Rembert, Hasid in the Psalms, Pro decimo Press, 1953. Stoebe, H. J., “Die Bedeutung des Wortes Hasad im Alten Testament,” VT 2:244–54. Yarbrough, Glen, “The Significance of ḥsd in the Old Testament,” Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1959. TDNT, I, pp. 696–701. THAT, I, pp. 599–622.
Harris, R. L., Harris, R. L., Archer, G. L., & Waltke, B. K. (1999). Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed.) (305–307). Chicago: Moody Press.