I feel like a bit of a detective, except that I wasn’t really looking for what I discovered. Mostly by accident, I’ve come across three different messages President Russell M. Nelson has given in the past six months in which he referenced the Hebrew word hesed. The more I’ve studied the word, the more it makes perfect sense to me that President Nelson might want us to know about it. And on a personal level, while I’m no Hebrew scholar, I’ve found myself getting almost nerd-level excited about hesed. Because it’s just, well … a really cool word communicating a really comforting truth. First, let’s take a look at how President Nelson has used it recently.
The first reference to hesed I noticed was in a footnote in President Nelson’s April 2022 general conference talk “The Power of Spiritual Momentum.” In the talk he says, “The Savior loves us always but especially when we repent. He promised that though ‘the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed … my kindness shall not depart from thee.’” 11
And that little “11” will lead you to this footnote: “Isaiah 54:10, emphasis added; see also 3 Nephi 22:10. Kindness is translated from the Hebrew term hesed, a powerful word with deep meaning that encompasses kindness, mercy, covenant love, and more.”
The next month, President Nelson gave an address to young adults of the Church called “Choices for Eternity.” In that message he says, “God has a special love for each person who makes a covenant with Him in the waters of baptism.22 And that divine love deepens as additional covenants are made and faithfully kept.”
And that little “22” will lead you to this footnote: “In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, the word for God’s covenant love is hesed.”
While discovering those almost back-to-back footnotes certainly piqued my interest, I realized later they were just the tip of the iceberg. The October 2022 Liahona included a message President Nelson had originally given in a general conference leadership meeting in March 2022. The article is called “The Everlasting Covenant,” and President Nelson’s uses the word hesed a whopping 13 times. Allow me to share some of what I’ve learned and see if the beauty of the truth taught by hesed has you ready to join in me in putting on some glasses and signing up for a Hebrew class.
Right after the introduction, the first heading in President Nelson’s message in the Liahona is “A Special Love and Mercy.” The section begins like this:
“Once we make a covenant with God, we leave neutral ground forever. God will not abandon His relationship with those who have forged such a bond with Him. In fact, all those who have made a covenant with God have access to a special kind of love and mercy. In the Hebrew language, that covenantal love is called hesed (חֶסֶד).
“Hesed has no adequate English equivalent. Translators of the King James Version of the Bible must have struggled with how to render hesed in English. They often chose ‘lovingkindness.’ This captures much but not all the meaning of hesed. Other translations were also rendered, such as ‘mercy’ and ‘goodness.’ Hesed is a unique term describing a covenant relationship in which both parties are bound to be loyal and faithful to each other.
“A celestial marriage is such a covenant relationship. A husband and wife make a covenant with God and with each other to be loyal and faithful to each other.
“Hesed is a special kind of love and mercy that God feels for and extends to those who have made a covenant with Him. And we reciprocate with hesed for Him.
“Once you and I have made a covenant with God, our relationship with Him becomes much closer than before our covenant. Now we are bound together. Because of our covenant with God, He will never tire in His efforts to help us, and we will never exhaust His merciful patience with us. Each of us has a special place in God’s heart. He has high hopes for us.”
What stands out to me from that is that hesed is a way to describe how our relationship with God is forever changed once we have made covenants with Him. Through covenants, our relationship formally becomes more close-knit. We choose to welcome more of God and His love and His influence into our lives. President Nelson later says, “The covenant path is all about our relationship with God—our hesed relationship with Him. When we enter a covenant with God, we have made a covenant with Him who will always keep His word. He will do everything He can, without infringing on our agency, to help us keep ours.”
If you’ve listened to President Nelson over the past few years, then you know that a focus of his teachings has been gathering Israel. And hesed is a central aspect of gathering Israel. As I understand it, it is because of the covenant love that God has for His people, which goes back to the Abrahamic covenant, that He gathers. President Nelson taught, “In such a timeless hesed relationship, it is only natural that God wants to gather Israel. He is our Heavenly Father! He wants each of His children—on both sides of the veil—to hear the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He later says that anything you or I do as members of the Church to help gather Israel is an expression of God’s hesed. But it doesn’t only apply to new converts or temple work. Hesed also means that God “will never tire in His efforts to help us, and we will never exhaust His merciful patience with us. Each of us has a special place in God’s heart.”
Isn’t that comforting? Because when we make covenants we are bound to God by these loving ties, He welcomes our repentance and efforts to improve. God loves all of His children, and through covenants we use our agency to embrace more of the love and protection He wants to give us.
So let’s recap. The four most important things that I’ve learned from President Nelson about hesed are:
- Hesed is the deep love God has for us when we make covenants with Him. Because of that covenant love, our relationship with Him becomes much closer than it was before we made covenants.
- Because of that covenant love, God will not give up on us and will always keep His word.
- Hesed is a central part of gathering Israel. God gathers because of the covenantal love He has for His children.
- When members of the Church help gather Israel, it is an expression of God’s hesed.
So there you have a quick introduction to hesed. If you want to join me in further study, President Nelson included a footnote in his message to a book by Kerry Muhlestein called God Will Prevail: Ancient Covenants, Modern Blessings, and the Gathering of Israel. President Nelson said that in this book we could find a “comprehensive discussion regarding hesed and the everlasting covenant.” I’ve begun studying the book and found myself wanting to copy and paste large sections of it into the notes app on my phone to reference later. Here are a few of my favorite points so far:
- “At its core, hesed indicates a special kind of love and mercy that is only available to those in a covenant relationship. Because God has hesed for those who have covenanted with Him, He will love them in such a way that, no matter what, He will continue to work with them and offer them chances to change and return to Him when they stray.”
- “[Hesed] is not merely an attitude or an emotion; it is an emotion that leads to an activity beneficial to the recipient.”
- “This loyal love means that God will always keep working with His covenant people. It means that when they stray, He will do whatever it takes to bring them back. It might be that they respond easily to His pleadings to return. In other circumstances, He may have to bring them back the hard way. Regardless, God will loyally and lovingly extend merciful chances to those for whom He has hesed.”
- “There is evidence in the Bible that after receiving hesed from God, mankind was supposed to extend hesed to each other, which was both necessary and only possible when in a covenant relationship with God and each other.”
- “Because of God’s hesed, it is covenantally certain that God will gather Israel back to Him.”
- “It is vitally important to recognize and feel God’s love for us. Trusting in that immovable love—that indefatigable hesed, that inexorable, compassionate caring for and reaching out to us—is essential to help us move along the covenant path.”
After all my study, I am even more excited for the upcoming October 2022 general conference to see if President Nelson will yet again talk about hesed. But whether or not his talks specifically use the word hesed isn’t so much the point. More important will be what we do after listening to him speak. Our change in heart and action will be what enables each of us to walk more firmly on the covenant path—the path of hesed.
Discover the obligations and blessings of making and keeping sacred covenants, as outlined in the standard works, with insights on topics ranging from temple work and family history to covenant language, the gathering of Israel, and the equalizing power of Christ's Atonement. With clarity and hope, this groundbreaking book speaks to this powerful truth: promised blessings and gatherings are available to all who truly seek to be covenant keepers. Available at Deseret Book and deseretbook.com.