Penitential Psalms and God’s Hesed

By Marjorie George

There is a word that is not often heard outside of seminary classrooms and expensive theological conferences. Pity, because it’s a great word.  The word is hesed, (hes-ed) and like many other grounding words it is so rich, so full, so deep in meaning that is takes half a dozen English words to define it. When applied to the attributes of God, which is how we most frequently encounter the word, it means God’s love.  But that love enfolds God’s kindness, faithfulness, mercy, loyalty, and steadfastness.

Because there is no exact English equivalent to the Hebrew hesed, it has proved hard for Bible translators to render it accurately, says Dr. Iain Duguid in the essay “Loyal-Love” (find a link to it below in the “more resources” section). Normally, hesed describes something that happens within an existing relationship, whether between two human beings or between God and man. In human relationships, hesed implies loving our neighbor, not merely in terms of warm emotional feelings but in acts of love and service that we owe to the other person simply because he is part of the covenant community. God’s people are to do justly, to love hesed, and to walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8).

“Yet the most precious use of the word hesed in the Old Testament,” says Duguid, “is as a description of what God does. Having entered a covenant relationship with His people, God bound Himself to act toward them in certain ways, and He is utterly faithful to His self-commitment.”   

God’s hesed is God living out God’s covenant with his people.  “You will be my people, and I will be your God,” he declares repeatedly through the prophets. God can do no other than to continually call his people into relationship with him and forgive them as they stumble through this life.  

And it is to God’s hesed that King David appeals when he finally acknowledges and claims his sin. 

The story is told in 2 Samuel 11-12, and if you have not read it lately, do so now. It is a story of lust leading to a web of dishonesty, connivance, and murder on David’s part.  Having seduced the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, one of David’s soldiers who is off fighting on the king’s behalf, David is confronted with Bathsheba’s pregnancy.  To cover his sin, David brings Uriah back from the war, hoping Uriah will sleep with his wife and own the pregnancy for himself.  But Uriah is a loyal soldier, and while his men are still on the battlefield, he eschews the pleasures of his wife and sleeps on the couch. 

David’s plan having been foiled, the king sends Uriah back to the battlefield and tells his general to put Uriah on the front lines, where Uriah will surely be killed. And he is.

Sin upon sin. David has succumbed to his human weaknesses, and most of us will cut him no slack.

The prophet Nathan certainly does not go easy on David when he approaches David and sets david’s sin before him. But such is the nature of God that when David concedes his wicked actions and repents, he can stand on the hesed of God. It is how David can say to God, in Psalm 51, “Against you only have I sinned” (vs 4).

The facts of David’s sins are indisputable and irrelevant. God has committed himself to relationship with us and will move heaven and earth, literally, to make it happen. Because we are made in the image of God, we long for that relationship as deeply as does our creator.

There are seven penitential psalms. We read them as confessional, and that is good.  But if we read them claiming God’s hesed, that is better. 

As we consider our own mistakes and weaknesses, we can join with King David and implore God:

Have mercy, O God, according to your
Loving-kindness (Psalm 51:1)

We are assured that mercy and loving-kindness are forthcoming. We are assured of God’s forgiveness because of God’s hesed.

If you are feeling the weight of past mistakes we invite you to pray the Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence found on page 267 of The Book of Common Prayer. We remember that God has made covenant, and God will be faithful through all eternity no matter how we feel or what we do. God, being God, can do no other. 

This week, read the penitential psalms as the psalmists wrote them, claiming God’s hesed for yourself.

Read this week:










More Resources


“The psalmist is convinced that instead of the covenant curse he deserves, the Lord’s faithful love and goodness will hunt him down relentlessly instead.”

Read Dr. Iain Duguid’s essay on hesed.

Back to introduction and contents of the psalms study.