To continue with our discussion of Biblical covenants, we come to an essential aspect of covenants: Covenant-keeping. To introduce this concept, it is helpful for us to realize that the ancient Hebrews had a special word for this: hesed. Hesed means covenant-keeper, and yet it is seldom translated that way when it is translated into English. Most Bible translators have rendered it as faithful, faithfulness, loving-kindness or mercy. While this may seem odd at first, a better understanding of this particular concept may help you see why this is so.
Faithful(ness) relates to the idea that someone will keep their word or their commitment to something… like an agreement. We use the terms “faithful” and “unfaithful” as covenant terms in English, particularly in referring to one’s obligation under a covenant of marriage to “remain faithful until death do us part.” If a person is said to have been “unfaithful” that person is usually thought of as having violated their marriage vow to (and here I nearly wrote ‘remain faithful’) not have sex with another person outside of their marriage. In fact, this connotation is so strong that we have forgotten that “faithful” is a covenant term and not a sexual term!
Loving-kindness and mercy are the result of God keeping His promises under his covenant relationship with men, and thus can only take place within the larger context of covenant-keeping, so they too are ways in which hesed can be translated into English. As we continue this series, you will see examples of all of these and a few more…
No covenant is worth its salt if the parties will not keep its terms. In a Biblical covenant, the parties consist of God and Man; that God is a covenant-keeper is the cement that holds the whole thing together, it is a given. God, because of His justice will keep his word, and because of His loving-kindness will help us keep our word, and this is why the Old Testament writers are constantly making reference to His hesed. This made a strong impression upon the Old Testament authors because they realized that hesed was never a question with God, it was always Man that had difficulty in keeping up his end of the bargain. They were much more aware than most of us are today that the covenant was a set of conditional promises; God will do such and such if Man kept their agreement, but God as the stronger party did not have to keep His promises if Man did not keep the terms. For an example of this, see Deut. 28:1-14 for God’s blessings (promises) if men kept His terms, and then see Deut. 28:15 ff. for the curses God would impose upon them if they did not. Thus, to sum it up, hesed with God was assumed, but with man it was the condition upon which all of His promises were based. This of course brings us to a second part of the meaning of hesed: It is not only based upon the legal quality of the relationship between the parties, but also upon the relational quality. Keeping covenant is based upon, first, keeping your end of the deal, and second, upon helping your covenant partner to keep their end of the deal. Again, think of the marriage covenant. Not only are you supposed to keep your promises to love, honor, cherish and not sleep around, but you are supposed to help your partner to do the same, and if you make your partner’s part hard to keep, you have violated covenant!
Finally, for the Hebrew, covenant keeping was essentially about behaviors. Behaviors that were allowed by covenant were to be done, behaviors not permitted were to be forbidden, and behaviors not mentioned were understood to be allowed. Behaving in accordance with the requirements of the covenant was keeping the covenant.