Hesed and the Mystery of God's Lovingkindness

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Michael Card
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , December
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael Card has written a fine book exploring the character of the God of the Bible and the practical implications of understanding God’s character for our lives. In Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness, Card’s discussion focuses entirely on the Hebrew word “hesed.” While the word hesed exhibits considerable semantic range, the word often refers to God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and justice. More specifically, according to Card, hesed is “when the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything” (27). Card aims to show that the God depicted in the Bible is the God of hesed.

Card divides the book into four parts. The first two parts illustrate God’s hesed in the Old Testament and at least two relevant themes emerge. One theme is that, unlike popular opinion, the God of the Old Testament is not an angry, distant, and malevolent being, but a kind and just being. Indeed, according to Card, no other contemporary cultures of ancient Israel described their gods as beings of kindness. The word “hesed” is uniquely Hebrew (42).

A second related theme that emerges is that the God of the Old Testament desires to extend hesed to his people. God’s people should know that they can expect to receive something they do not deserve. God’s people have a right to expect nothing from God and yet God desires that they expect everything. One example of this application of hesed is God’s forgiveness of King David. David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife, then murdered Uriah and lied about the act. David knows that “he needs hesed the most when he deserves it the least” (69). That second theme of expecting hesed when we least deserve it carries into the New Testament description of God and hesed.

In parts three and four, Card describes hesed in the New Testament and then discusses how we ought to practice hesed in our lives. Comparable to the example of King David, the story about Jesus and the centurion in Luke 7 displays God’s hesed. The centurion’s servant is about to die. The centurion knows that he does not deserve anything from Jesus, but nevertheless sends his friends to ask Jesus to command the healing of the servant. This act of faith surprises even Jesus. The centurion knows he has a right to expect nothing from Jesus and yet asks Jesus for healing nonetheless (111-112).  

In the final part, Card explores how people practice hesed, usually by imitating the acts of Jesus (134). Jesus depicts acts of love, mercy, and justice, especially for those who are undeserving. For example, giving to the poor is a fundamental act of hesed (130), in which we extend everything to those who need it. Moreover, the example of the Good Samaritan suggests that hesed applies to our enemies. Our enemies have a right to expect nothing from us and yet we should desire to give them everything. So, for Card, one fully begins to understand hesed by doing hesed (128).

Card’s book is less a technical evaluation of hesed, as one would expect from a dictionary or commentary, and more often carries a devotional tone. The chapters are short, include various anecdotes, scripture readings, and thought-provoking comments and questions. The book compels the reader to fully embrace, experience, and show God’s hesed. As stated, for the author a full appreciation of hesed requires practicing hesed and not only reading about hesed. If that was Card’s goal, then I think he largely succeeds. The book encourages one to reflect and meditate on God’s hesed and the importance of applying hesed to life.  

The downside to that strategy, however, is that many questions concerning the deeper philosophical issues of hesed remain unanswered. Indeed, for instance, where is the God of hesed in the world today? Many sincere individuals observe the history of the human race up to present and wonder whether or not God exhibits hesed, particular in terms of justice. If God’s hesed includes retributive justice, in that the sins of the guilty do not go unpunished (134), then what evidence exists that God carries out that justice in the world today? Is God’s hesed in terms of justice applied only after death? If so, then does God’s hesed in terms of justice really matter for ordinary people in the present?

Card does not engage with hesed in terms of justice as often as lovingkindness and mercy. Even on that score, however, one could raise similar questions. Where in the world today is the God of hesed in terms of lovingkindness and mercy? Do the worst off in society experience God’s lovingkindness and mercy? In what way? Do the worst off have a right to expect nothing from God and yet should anticipate receiving everything, or even just something? If so, then what should the worst off expect from the God of hesed? At times the book is unclear as to whether the description of God’s hesed applies to the world today as a generalization or as a reality that every individual in the world can experience.

Card hints at a possible response to those questions. The God of hesed can be observed and experienced in the world today through his people, both in terms of justice and lovingkindness. Individuals practicing hesed as justice and lovingkindness is what extends God’s image in the world (128). To find God’s hesed in the world is just to find God’s people in the world, particularly those who emulate the life of Jesus. This final point is perhaps the most pertinent conclusion made in the book. The God of hesed described in the Bible and exemplified by Jesus provides not only guidance for how to live, but the evidence for the existence of God’s hesed in the world today.



About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Brigham has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Card has recorded over thirty-one albums, authored or coauthored over twenty-four books, hosted a radio program, and written for a wide range of magazines.


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