If I Could Preach Only One Sermon: Ruth
I cannot tell you how many variations I have heard of sermon and sermon points about the special kind of agape love in the New Testament. Variations often emphasize the uniqueness and the sacrificial aspects of agape love and distinguish it from the other Greek words. Yet, as D.A. Carson warned in his book Exegetical Fallacies, this is a kind of word fallacy. Certainly, the New Testament contains the concept of sacrificial love like we see Christ give, and yes John and 1 John use the word agape, but the concept is bigger than one word. Nevertheless, it sounds great to speak of a special and unique “agape” that is unlike any other kind of love.
I wish that these would be Greek scholars spent a little time studying the Old Testament Hebrew word “hesed.” The word does not translate well into English and often is translated something like “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love.” The word has a range of meaning so it does not fit well to one English word. When we look at the concepts this word is used to describe in the Scriptures, we see a beautiful picture of a love that is loyal, covenantal, steadfast, and unending.
If I had one sermon to preach, I would preach on the concept of hesed both in the character of God and as illustrated in the book of Ruth. The word hesed is found all over the Psalms. It is for example the constant repeated refrain in Psalm 136 “for his steadfast love endures forever.” The Lord’s love lasts forever and is bound up in His covenant with his people. It is a loyal love that does not end or break.
Hesed is one of the key attributes of God.
Ex. 34:6-7 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
God has this character of love and loyalty. It isn’t something that we deserve. But God unites Himself to His people. He gifts us grace and mercy and all of these things that we do not deserve. We are sinful and yet He freely lavishes it out on us…and then we are sinful again. God doesn’t turn away. He sticks to His promise. He keeps His oath. He continues to love and redeem His children. When His children break the Sinai Covenant, He promises the New Covenant. Although there are consequences from their sin, God remains faithful, loyal, and does not break his hesed.
It is not too much to say that the whole narrative of the Bible is a story of God showing his “hesed” and faithfulness to His people. He continues to redeem them and bring them back. He ultimately keeps his promise by sending Christ to be our substitute. The basis for God pardoning our sin is His hesed (Ps. 51:1; Num. 14:19).
One great example of hesed is the covenant between David and Jonathan which David honors beyond the death of Jonathan to take care of his crippled son. However, I think the classic and best example of hesed on display is the story of Ruth which is one filled with hesed.
After wandering from God and his promised inheritance in the land, as Naomi returns to Israel, she blesses her daughters-in-law that the Lord may give them hesed, translated “deal kindly”:
Ruth 1:8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.
But rather than turning away, Ruth forsakes everything she has, every potential for a human heritage of children so that she might bind herself in a covenant to the Lord and to her mother-in-law, Naomi. She is practicing hesed:
Ruth 1:16-17 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Later, when Naomi finds out about the kindness of Boaz to Ruth by allowing her to glean in his field, she praises God: “May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness [hesed] has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (Ruth 2:20). Later Boaz shows hesed by being the kinsman redeemer all the while praising Ruth for showing hesed in not pursuing young men out of convenience and selfishness (Ruth 3:10). Finally, it is evident that God’s hesed is on display as the end of Ruth tells us that the lineage of Ruth and Boaz leads us to King David. So Elimelech and Naomi had wandered from God but by the end the book, God has not left them but given them the heritage of a kingly line. True hesed on display in God’s giving of unmerited gifts and grace.
God doesn’t forsake His children. It’s not because His children deserve His love. We are sinners. But when God makes a promise He keeps it. He cannot break His oath. It is a far richer concept of love when we tie it to words like “loyalty,” “covenant faithfulness,” and “steadfast love.” As Darrell Block remarks that hesed is “is a covenant term, wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty--in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty.”
Hesed is a love that we find only in the perfection of God. Yet, when God’s children are transformed to bear His image, they are to mirror these qualities in their life and relationships. No matter what happens in your life, God’s hesed to you will not be broken; it stands forever.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
 D.I. Block "Ruth 1: Book of" Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Writings and Poetry (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2008) p.682.