Our Relationships are special gifts from God, each having its own unique dynamics of temperament and disposition. During the holiday season, we are regularly confounded in our attempts to restore or renew our familial and fraternal connections. Oftentimes, it is those close associations that are the most difficult, and that require the most effort to rebuild and maintain; but we have a habit of being swept into the holiday frenzy and fail to invest our time and energy with those who are closest. Even if we have the occasion to meet and greet and sup or swill with those whom we visit, very rarely is there enough time to make more than a cursory personal connection. The warm feelings of ‘good cheer’ and ‘holiday spirit’ can soon fade amidst the harsh glare and daily press of life; all our good intentions and relationship resolutions gradually dwindle and vanish with the tinsel and confetti. What are those bedrock principles that will help us grow and mend our relationships?
Those of us who celebrate our Savior’s birth do well to reflect on the joy and promise of that blessed event, but we often overlook its meaning within the relationship wherein it was, and is, the most significant. The events surrounding the birth in Bethlehem are part of the most inspiring and tragic love story in human history. The very words we use for relationships are defined in this story; there can be no greater love or greater Lover, no deeper fall or more tragic betrayal. There has never been greater sacrificial rescue, a more dearly-bought redemption, and not in all of time, a more joyous return, thrilling reunion and sumptuous wedding feast. For those who love the King, there can never be a sweeter ‘happily ever after’ than this story contains. Understanding the realities of this relationship can help us to put our relationships into perspective and focus on what is important.
God chose Jeremiah to bring a particular message that was a sharp rebuke to His chosen people. Their relationship had not been a distant or casual one; it was compared to the closest, most intimate relationship possible, yet the trust had been broken. It had been a rocky courtship to say the least, and God opens the message of reproach not with cursing but with fond remembrances of the relationship at its best.
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
“Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD,
“I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth,
The love of your betrothals,
Your following after Me in the wilderness
Through a land not sown
Israel was holy to the Lord,
The first of His harvest.” declares the LORD.’ ”
Jeremiah 2:1-3 (NASB)
God speaks tenderly of the relationship He had with His people before they had forsaken Him. He recalls the closeness and companionship there was between Him and His chosen bride, Israel, when they followed him through the desert. He recounts how the people depended on Him for their very sustenance, and how He lovingly protected them from any who dared to interpose between them. He considered His people betrothed (כְלוּלָה kĕlûlâ) to Him after He had chosen them, protected them, brought them out of slavery and met with them at Sinai, culminating in their acceptance of the covenant offer:
“Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Exodus 24:7,8 (NASB)
There are three facets God mentions which characterize the bond he seeks to rekindle. The first of these is חֶ֫סֶד (ḥěʹsěḏ) translated in verse 2 as ‘devotion’. Elsewhere in Jeremiah (9:24, 16:5, 31:3, 32:18, 33:11) and the rest of the Old Testament, it is translated primarily as ‘lovingkindness’
It is significant that in Jeremiah where God mentions fondly the time Israel followed Him in the wilderness, He uses a word that only appears once in the Torah in connection with their time in the wilderness. Had he wanted, he could have brought up the nearly endless list of their failures and weaknesses but he chose rather to highlight the area from where the only real solution could possibly originate, both then and now. He chose to remind them in this way of a pivotal event in their history. It would serve to highlight not their sinfulness, but His lovingkindness during this very special, formative period, when they were totally dependent on Him.
In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Old Testament (which is chock full of dramatic scenes by the way), the Israelites are on the verge of entering the land as God had commanded (Numbers 14); when they receive conflicting reports back from the spies they had sent in to scout out the land and its inhabitants. Rather than believe the minority report from Joshua and Caleb, which was consistent with God’s wishes, urging them to proceed into the land, their faith collapsed completely and they ‘wept aloud’, reverting to what by this time seems to be their default position. “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in the desert!” they grumbled, all the while laying plans to replace Moses with a new leader who would (in direct defiance of God) lead them back to Egypt. The people refused to listen to any further appeals from Joshua and Caleb and were apparently moments away from stoning the leadership to death, when God Himself stepped in to stop it. Only through the sustained entreaties of Moses on their behalf did God spare the entire people from immediate smiting and dispossession for this latest outrage.
“But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared,‘The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.” Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now. So the LORD said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the LORD. Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it… ” Numbers 14:17–23 NASB
At least ten times prior to this Israel had disobeyed God while He was leading them:
Before the parting of the Red Sea Exodus 14:10–12
When they found biter water at Marah Exodus 15:22-26
When they were hungry in the wilderness of Sin Exodus 16:1-3
When they were out of water at Rehphidim Exodus 17:1-10
When Moses was up on the mountain Exodus 32
When they grumbled at Taberah Numbers 11:1-3
When they missed Egyptian cuisine Numbers 11:4-17
When they were greedy at Kibroth-hattaavah Numbers 11:31-35
When they turned against Moses Numbers 14:1-5
When they threatened murder Numbers 14:5-10
This was certainly not the end of Israel’s failures, but it was a turning point in the relationship. God punished the people for their waywardness (יְנַסּוּ wǎynǎssû, lit. ‘put to the test’), but he did not destroy them completely. Moses appealed to God based on His lovingkindness (חֶ֫סֶד ḥěʹsěḏ), and because of it, God forgave them (סָלַ֖חְתִּי sālǎḥʹtî, lit. ‘I have pardoned them’). The people were only banished from the land for forty years, while all those who had rebelled would die naturally.
The word translated lovingkindness (חֶ֫סֶד ḥěʹsěḏ) is used both of men and of God and it is even used of flowers (Is 40:6). Its general meaning seems to be ‘that good and beautiful quality which characterizes the specific relationship of the context’. Between men and God the word is used in constructions where it is shown to be comprised of loyal, faithful love that is merciful and forgiving such as the one Moses quoted above (Exodus 34:6,7). Charles Ryrie, in his book ‘The Grace of God’, summarizes his lengthy analysis thus: “Chesed is the firm loving-kindness expressed between related people and particularly in the covenants into which God entered with His people and which his chesed guaranteed.” As Israel exemplified, human chesed is weak, temporal, fleeting and unsure. God’s chesed is just the opposite, as it is based in His eternal and unchanging character. It is the cement that held together His relationship with Israel, just as it will restore that relationship in a new and revolutionary way in the last days. It was essential in the promises God made in the Davidic covenant (Psalms 89:19-37), and it has a central role in His future plans for Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hosea 2:18-23).
In the New Testament, Paul shows how God’s mercy (ἐλεέω eleeō) has always been active in fulfilling his purposes in and through those whom he has chosen, despite their weaknesses. Contrary to human wisdom, God’s love, mercy and grace have turned the rebelliousness of Israel to the benefit of all. “For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.” (Romans 11:30–32).
In Romans chapter 12, where Paul urges believers to exercise the gifts given to them, he exhorts those who show mercy to do so with cheerfulness (ἱλαρότης hilarotēs). This word can mean cheerfulness, gladness, wholeheartedness and graciousness. While cheerfulness may not be appropriate for all gifts and all occasions, we can relax and be thoroughly magnanimous in our relationships with others, knowing that the inexhaustible Source is available to us, “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:5.
No matter the vagaries of our feelings, the chaos and uncertainty of human existence, the enemies arrayed against us, or the bitter disappointment of our own failings; God’s lovingkindness towards us will never end.
The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
 Charles Ryrie, The Grace of God (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), 20.
 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 474.