POP QUIZ! What do these two psalms have in common? They have the same response line (below in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin):
ki l’olam khasdo כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ׃
ὅτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ (h)oti eis ton aiona to eleos autou
quoniam in saeculum misericordia ejus.
For Ps 136, especially, it’s an interesting line. It’s usually translated as “for his love endures for ever” or “for his mercy” or “steadfast love”. It’s an unusual choice. He gives food to everyone because his love is eternal is ok, but we’re stuck saying God’s love caused the Egyptians to die in the Red Sea or his mercy killed Og the King of Bashan. I find that confusing, just to be honest. One way to read it is that his love is for Israel and so he’s beating up on Gentiles. But that’s not so. We know from the later prophets that God calls all the Gentiles too. Jonah goes to Nineveh, there is prophecy directed at Babylon, Persia, Edom… God’s plan includes all these nations. And, as Christians, we say God’s plan includes everyone. So what do we hear when we say, “his love (mercy, whatever) endures forever”? What do we mean?
In the line ki l’olam khasdo there are two words of interest: ki and khasdo. Ki is a conjunction. It can be that as in “praise him that his love endures” or it can mean because. I’m intrigued that it can be used as an oath: I swear this (ki) this this thing is true. That would make all these verses a sort of credal statement: these things happened ki l’olam (which means eternal) khasdo which gets us to our second word.
It’s the possessive form (“o” is his) of chesed. God chooses the male pronoun here. Let’s be clear.
I’m fascinated by the use of chesed to mean “grace” in modern Israeli Hebrew. My Protestant past understands grace differently than the Orthodox and Catholic tradition. In Protestantism grace is something unearned, free, and – importantly – something that Jesus paid for. There is no such thing as a free lunch and my evangelical teachers taught me that grace means, “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. For traditional Christian theology, though, Grace is the divine life in which we participate – it’s the action of God moving us to himself. For Orthodox, it’s one of the “energies” of God but for a Catholic, believing in absolute divine simplicity, Grace is God himself. (CCC ¶52 God, who “dwells in unapproachable light”, wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created, in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son. By revealing himself God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity. ¶1997 Grace is a participation in the life of God and ¶2023 Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us). All the words used for the translation, then – Divine Mercy, Divine Love, Divine Grace, Divine Steadfast Love, Faithfulness, etc. – are all the same: God is and his life in us is chesed.
While it’s tempting to say a Protestant idea of Grace caused Bible translators to used “mercy” and “love” here, that would not be correct. Jerome was already using misericordia in the Vulgate which contains root words for both “mercy” and “heart”. The Greek (LXX) is sticking with Mercy in that form related to “olive oil” and “soothing”. Only internet irony causes me to want to render it as “give me a massage, Lord”. Catholics, too, have problems here. We can tend to want “mercy” and “love” to mean only “just be nice to everyone”. Nice is not love. We need to learn that.
For both Orthodox and Catholic thought, grace is something (God) at work in the world to accomplish his will, which is the restoration of everyone to his presence. So we can see the great calamities mentioned in Ps 136 and well as the praises in Ps 118 as a celebration of God working out his will in the world through his grace.
What makes this important to me just now is the use of hesed to describe all the things it’s used for from stages of the Creation story to the Red Sea crossing, from the killing of the first born to the killing of Og. We’re used to thinking of “Grace” as something that was (nearly) invented in the writings of Paul. No matter how you think about it, Protestantly or Cathodoxly, if you read “grace” into Hesed, you have to accept that the Old Testament is telling the same story as the New. You can do a David Bently Hart/Marcionite Heresy and say the OT is violent but the NT is loving it’s grace all the way though. The God that sent us Jesus sent us the 10 Plagues and for exactly the same reason. That we have trouble seeing it is on us, not God. God is love. Full stop.
Grace, clearly, is not always something we might welcome or find enjoyable. In fact, it sometimes bites us in the backside. This should not surprise us: for full cooperation in the life of God leads Jesus to some interesting places. Yet the point of Grace is to draw us to God from the inside: it’s not a magnet, it’s a homing device.
Because his grace endures for ever.