IS "HESED" THE SAME AS "AGAPE"?
GOD'S LOVE DEFINED BY COVENANT IN THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS

Kindness and faithful love (hesed) pursue me every day of my life.  I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come. 
Psalm 23:6

For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
John 3:16

God's love for His covenant people in the Old Testament is expressed by the Hebrew word hesed (checed), which in our English translations is usually rendered as "love," or as in the New Jerusalem Bible translation as "faithful love."  However, hesed has a much narrower definition than the English word "love" conveys.  In the Hebrew Scriptures hesed refers to the kind of love that is promised and is owed, a mutual exchange of affection and loyalty based on mutual obligations, love formed in the bonds of covenant. When this Hebrew word is used of human relationships it means union and loyalty in the context of the marriage covenant and when used between men or nations, it expressed the covenant bond of a treaty obligation (Genesis 21:27; 1 Samuel 11:1). 

When hesed is used to express God's interaction with man, this Hebrew word expresses God's faithfulness to His covenant and the blessings and mercy He shows His obedient covenant people as in Exodus 34:6-7: Then Yahweh passed before him and called out. 'Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love (hesed) and constancy, maintaining his faithful-love (hesed) to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin, yet letting nothing go unchecked, and punishing the parent's fault in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation!

Another example is found in Hosea 2:21 (19) where Yahweh, addressing Israel as His covenant bride says: I shall betroth you to myself for ever, I shall betroth you in uprightness and justice, and faithful love (hesed) and tenderness.  In this passage Yahweh uses the word hesed in the context of married love, which is one of the ways God expresses His tender love for His bride, Israel.  The Hebrew word hesed is also used in this same context of covenant marital love in many other passages in Old Testament Scripture, for example in Psalm 136 where the word hesed is repeated 26 times, once in every verse.  This Psalm is called the Great Hallel.  At the Passover meal it was recited after the "Lesser Hallel" (which is Psalm 113-118) at the end of sacrificial meal.

This expression of Yahweh's faithful covenant love is not limited to a single generation.  When a repentant Israel returns to her Lord, Yahweh promises blessings which come to Israel from her obedience to Yahweh, her spouse, expressed in His everlasting hesed/love which will extend through generations of covenant children:

The expression of Yahweh's faithful love is also promised to Israel's kings who will serve Yahweh as a faithful son serves a father as in King David's praise of God's faithful love in 2 Samuel 22:50-51: For this I will praise you, Yahweh, among the nations, and sing praise to your name.  He saves his king, time after time, displays faithful love for his anointed, for David and his heirs for ever.

In Jeremiah chapter 31, Jeremiah's hopeful passages of covenant renewal, Yahweh tells His prophet His plans for His wayward Bride if she will return to Him in faithfulness: When that time comes, Yahweh declares, I shall be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.  Yahweh says this: They have found pardon in the desert, those who have survived the sword.  Israel is marching to his rest.  Yahweh has appeared to me from afar; I have loved you with an everlasting love and so I still maintain my faithful love for you (Jeremiah 31:1-3).

However, just as Yahweh's faithful love will extend to generations of the faithful, His punishment for Israel's lack of faithful love will also reach down through generations as the prophet Jeremiah warns in Jeremiah 32:18-19: You show faithful love to thousands but repay the fathers' guilt in full to their children after them. Great and mighty God, whose name is Yahweh Sabaoth, great in purpose, mighty in deed, whose eyes are open on all human ways, rewarding every individual as that person's ways and actions deserve!

Yahweh's hesed covenant love calls for the same kind of commitment from the human beings who have entered into covenant with Him. This commitment consists of self-giving, trust, deep affection, and joyful submission to the Law of the covenant as an expression of love: I praise your name for your faithful love and your constancy; your promises surpass even your fame.  [..].  Though I live surrounded by trouble you give me life-to my enemies' fury!  You stretch out your right hand and save me, Yahweh will do all things for me.  Yahweh, your faithful love endures for ever, do not abandon what you have made (Psalm 138:2b, 7-8).  Hesed love is not a static love but a love which must be returned: faithful love is what pleases me, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not burnt offerings (Hoses 6:6).

Knowledge of God cannot be separated from love for God: Yahweh says this, 'Let the sage not boast of wisdom, nor the valiant of valor, nor the wealthy of riches!  But let anyone who wants to boast, boast of this: of understanding and knowing me.  For I am Yahweh, who acts with faithful love (hesed), justice, and uprightness on earth; yes, these are what please me,' Yahweh declares (Jeremiah 9:22-23).  Knowledge of God is not merely intellectual assent that God exists.  To "know" in the language of the Bible indicates intimate knowledge of the person either in a sexual sense or in a covenantal sense.  Biblical covenants form families in marriages and in the sense of extended families.  When David forms a covenant bond with King Saul's son Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:14-17), Jonathan becomes David's "brother," and it is as a brother that David laments Jonathan's death in 2 Samuel 1:26: Jonathan, by your dying I too am stricken, I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother.

When Yahweh forms a covenant with an individual or with a people, He unites Himself to them, not only as Bridegroom to Bride as in the sense of the corporate covenant with Israel but in the case of the Davidic covenant, God becomes David's and Solomon's father and David and Solomon become God's sons (2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 17:11-14).  God shows His hesed for his covenant children by the blessings he confers upon them and, similarly, God's covenant children "know God" when then observe the covenant obligations and show their gratitude for God's blessings and return His love:   ...then you will understand what the fear of Yahweh is, and discover the knowledge of God.  For Yahweh himself is giver of wisdom, from his mouth issue knowledge and understanding.  He reserves his advice for the honest, a shield to those whose ways are sound; he stands guard over the paths of equity, he keeps watch over the way of those faithful to him (Proverbs 2:5-8).

This bond of covenant love between Yahweh and His children, like marital love, it is neither optional nor unconditional, it is obligatory and its intimacy limited to the beloved.  This is not to say hesed as covenant love is forced or compelled.  The covenant partner enters freely into the bond of love.  Just as in marriage, love cannot be forced but it is expected in fulfillment of the union.  This covenant love may be freely and graciously given but from the biblical perspective, there is no such thing as "free love."  In this way hesed is not so much a feeling as a decision of will.  In the Bible when God's people are called upon to "love" they are being asked to respond lovingly to the love of God whether the feel like it or not. Consider Jesus' command to His disciples in Matthew 5:44 when He tells them to "Love your enemies..."

In the Greek language, as in Hebrew, there are several terms used for the emotion "love."  Eros is passionate or physical love; phileo is expressed as love of family or love of mankind and agape is the Greek word for spiritual or divine love.  As the word agape is used in the New Testament, agape can express the love that God has for mankind in general as in John 3:16: For God so loved the world...  In this way agape differs from hesed in that it does not refer to a love already promised to a specific group of people.  The second way agape is used is not only for God's love for us but also for the human response to God's love as well as for love shared and expressed between covenant believers, brothers and sisters in the covenant family.  For example in John 21:15 Jesus asks Peter: "do you love (agapas) me more than these?"  In Matthew 5:43 agape is used to refer to love of neighbor and seems interchangeable with philos, brotherly love: You have heard how it was said, 'You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say this to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...  In this case agape is even used when Jesus refers to loving an enemy.  Therefore, agape is not just a covenant love owed in loyalty to a particular person or group with whom one is in a committed relationship, whether it is God or another person in the human family.  Agape love refers to a more unique love, to an unconditional, self-sacrificing love which does not expect reward. 

In 1 Corinthians chapter 13, St. Paul gives instructions to all Christians on how they should use their spiritual gifts.  He begins his treatise with the words: Though I command languages both human and angelic, if I speak without love (agape), I am no more than a gong booming or a symbol clashing (1 Corinthians 13:1).  Paul uses the word agape as the expression of love all Christians should exhibit using the spiritual gifts God has given them.  Therefore, agape love, whether divine or human, is a self-sacrificial love which the Gospel of John says characterizes God, and which should characterize all of us in our response to God and to each other: For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16). For the Christian agape love is defined as an expression of divine grace which means it is undeserved and unmerited.  In its unique redefined Christian definition, agape is a love human beings cannot give apart from God because agape expressed as self-sacrificial love is the example He set for us on the altar of the cross, and its true expression flows from Christ, just as the blood and water flowed from His side, in abundance to us and from us to the world.  For the Christian then, agape love is a higher order love than hesed because it is divinely inspired by Christ Himself.  Hesed is based on obedience but agape is founded in unmerited grace.  Agape love, unconditional self-sacrificial love, is how Jesus commanded us to love when He said: "Love one another as I have loved you."

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2007 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

Notes:
Other Hebrew words which are translated as "love" in the Old Testament are ahab in the masculine and ahabah in the feminine; chashaq; dod; racham (compassionate love); ra'yah (fem sisterly love); reya (brotherly love); chashaq (in love).
All biblical passages quoted in this document are from the New Jerusalem Bible translation.