Trusting in God’s Hesed Love

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 19, 2023. It is based on Genesis 15.


Love is a funny word. Also a very misused, or at least overused, word. We use it to describe how we feel about our loved ones and how we feel about chocolate or hockey or our job. What does it mean to love someone, or for someone to love us? I think it’s safe to say that these days this often refers more to attraction and to the emotions we have about someone than anything else. If this is true, what does love mean when our emotions shift and fluctuate?

With all this in mind, what might it mean that God loves us? Does it mean that he just has happy feelings about us? Or is there something else going on when we say that God loves us?

“Lord God, how can I know?”

Before our story in Genesis, Abram had been called by God to leave all he had and all he knew. God had promised Abram offspring, despite he and his wife Sarai’s age, and land. God intended to create a people — the nation of Israel — starting with Abram. In this way, the Lord was acting redemptively in the world.

And Abram sometimes trusted and acted in faith and sometimes he didn’t. When we get to our passage some time had passed since the Lord had called him out of Ur. And in this passage we see God repeating his promises to Abram and seeking to reassure Abram that he is indeed trustworthy.

So the Lord appears to Abram in a vision. Notice the first words Abram hears from the Lord: Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward will be very great.

Already Abram has been through quite a bit. Leaving everything. Famine. A lot of traveling. Tribal warfare. There’s been doubt and danger aplenty! So it is any wonder that the first words in this vision are Do not be afraid, Abram?

But notice, too, in the first part of our passage, in the conversation Abram has with the Lord, that he has questions, doubts even, about the Lord’s promises. Even when the Lord repeats the promise about land, Abram simply asks: Lord God, how can I know that I will possess it?

Abram is simply wondering — and struggling with — how he can trust God when it doesn’t seem as though the promises are coming true, when the promises seem impossible to believe.

Now, since every one of us can have doubts and struggle with trusting the Lord, it’s important to notice that the Lord does not chastise Abram for his questions. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t dismiss Abram’s questions.

It’s not as if God is unaware of how hard it can be to trust him sometimes. I mean, look at what he had promised Abram, already an old man: innumerable descendants and land. He told Abram he would bless the whole world through him.

The Lord had made extravagant, grandiose promises to Abram. He’s made promises that are even more amazing to us! He’s told us that if we trust him, even death is n longer something to fear, that he plans on creating a new heavens and a new earth where we will dwell with him for eternity!

And we’re also told that Abram did believe. Abram believed the Lord, our text says. And yet he asked questions. He had uncertainties that lived alongside his faith. He trusted God, but was still learning to trust God.

Here’s the other thing: he also told the Lord as much. Maybe we can think of this conversation between Abram and the Lord as prayer. After all, Abram is talking with the Lord and opening his heart to him. By asking his questions he is genuinely seeking the Lord. He’s like Mary asking the angel Gabriel how she’ll be able to conceive a child.

I truly believe the Lord invites us to do likewise. So rather than allow our questions or fears drive us away from the Lord, we should let them drive us to the Lord.

What happens when fears and doubts and questions arise for you? Do you lean on or away from the Lord? Are you able to bring those uncertainties and fears to the Lord? How does your experience of the Lord’s faithfulness help you trust him to keep his promises for the future?

“The Lord made a covenant with Abram”

In the next part of our passage — which is the heart of the passage — God does something to reassure Abram. What he does, though, may seem a little strange to us.

Abram gets some instructions. Bring a 3 year old cow, a 3 year old female goat, a 3 year old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram does so and then cuts each of these animals in half, then places the pieces opposite one another. It’s the start of a very strange ritual or ceremony.

Some scholars refer to this ritual as “cutting a covenant,” establishing a relationship and an agreement between two parties. In order to ratify the covenant, both parties would walk between the arranged pieces of sacrificial animals. And that’s where our passage gets a little weird. After arranging the halves of the sacrificial animals, the sun is setting and Abram goes into a deep sleep and experiences some kind of deep terror. Then once the sun had set we’re told that a smoking firepot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals. This is strange. So what on earth is going on here?

Again, while there are uncertainties and questions surrounding this ritual, the smoking firepot and the flaming torch appear to represent the Lord himself. And if that’s so, then only the Lord passes between the divided halves of the sacrificial animals. Abram does not, even though that would have been expected with such a ritual.

To explain the significance of this, let me quote author Skye Jethani. He wrote this in one of his recent With God Daily devotions: “Unlike typical covenant-cutting ceremonies, Abraham did not walk between the animals. YHWH walked alone to demonstrate his divine character . . . By walking between the animals alone, the Lord was saying that even if Abraham and his family failed to uphold their part of the covenant, he would never fail to fulfill his. God’s hesed, his covenant loyalty, will not be shaken by our disloyalty because it is rooted in his character and not dependent on ours.”

Jethani mentions the Hebrew word hesed. It’s a difficult word to translate into English because no one English word can fully capture all of its meaning. It can be translated as “faithful love,” “loyal love,” “unfailing love,” “great loyalty,” “steadfast love,” “favor,” or “overflowing with mercy.” Some scholars argue it is the most important word in the Hebrew Bible or OT.

Musician and Bible teacher Michael Card, while admitting that it’s difficult to adequately express the word’s meaning, describes hesed this way: “When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”

So when we talk about how the Lord loves us, we need to understand that God’s love is neither sentimental nor fickle. His love is not only about how God feels towards us but how he commits himself to act in relation to us. Hesed is a commitment word. It’s an action word. It’s about what God promises to do.

Think about marriage vows. What do the traditional vows say? In richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live. Living out such vows is to live out hesed love.

It is this hesed love that prompts God to call Abram and to make the covenant with him. It is this hesed love that we see as the Lord continually reassures Abram that he will keep his promises. It is this hesed love that forms the foundation and heart of the Lord’s relationship to Abram and his relationship to us.

Think about the significance of this. God has committed himself to his people. God promises to be steadfast, to be faithful, to be loyal in all the promises he has made. God commits himself to being faithful to Abram and his descendants even if they are not always faithful in return. Abram was invited to trust that this was true.

“The new covenant in my blood”

And so are we. We too are invited to trust in God’s hesed. We too are invited to believe that God will be faithful to us, to his people.

It’s not that God is instructing us to gather a selection of animals to cut into halves for an ancient ritual. In our case we’re talking about a different covenant. You see, just as animals were used sacrificially in the covenant between Abram and the Lord, a sacrifice is also at the centre of the covenant that God has made with us.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, before he went to the cross, he took the cup after supper and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Though his disciples did not understand at the time, he was talking about his sacrificial death on the cross. Through his suffering, death, and resurrection Jesus was establishing a new covenant, a new kind of relationship between us and God.

Here too our Lord bears the weight of being faithful to the covenant. Indeed, our Lord Jesus goes to the cross to ratify this covenant knowing full well we would be highly imperfect covenant partners.

On the cross, we also see hesed: we see a steadfast, merciful, gracious, loyal covenant love in flesh and blood. In his covenant with Abram, the Lord instructed Abram to sacrifice animals. In his covenant with us, he sacrificed himself.

The covenant the Lord made with Abram established a binding relationship between them. On the one side is the Lord’s promise to be utterly faithful in keeping his promises. On the other side is our trust that he will be faithful to his promises. We are invited to participate in the new covenant in Jesus’ blood. We do so, like Abram, by faith.

Jesus has bound himself to us. Through faith what is Christ’s becomes ours: resurrection to eternal life in his presence among the people of God in the new heavens and new earth.

How do we know we can trust the Lord to keep his promises? Because of his hesed love. Because he has made an unwavering commitment to be faithful — and because this commitment is indicative of his character, of who the Lord is. And because he demonstrates this love in a visible, tangible, profound way by coming into our world and by going to the cross.


Now, here’s the thing about trusting in the Lord’s promises, trusting in his hesed love. It means trusting him for a future we can’t see with our eyes. It also means trusting him when things look like they’re going in the wrong direction.

Look at what the Lord says to Abram right in the middle of the covenant ritual: Know this for certain: Your offspring will be resident aliens for four hundred years in a land that does not belong to them and will be enslaved and oppressed.

In other words, God is telling Abram: “There will be a time when it looks like your descendants — the ones I promised to bring into the promised land I’m giving you — are not blessed but cursed.”

Both history and life are messy and filled with detours and pit stops. And God is honest about this with Abram. And he’s honest about that with us.

Does it always look like God’s promises are true? Do we always feel sure or certain when we look around at the world that God will keep his promises, that he is trustworthy? Or like Abram do we sometimes ask, Lord God, how can I know?

Remember: we can believe, we can trust, and still struggle and ask questions. Remember: the Lord’s hesed love doesn’t change because we struggle to trust him.

But our trust in God’s hesed love can grow and become stronger. First, pray. It sounds obvious. It sounds simple. But it never stops being true. And we pray, pray honestly. Don’t use your prayers to hide from God but to run to him.

Second, seek regular fellowship with other pilgrims, with other believers. Encourage one another. We’re not on this journey alone.

Third, keep looking to Jesus. Keep looking to the cross and what it says about God’s hesed love for you. This means keep looking to God’s word. Keep reading the Bible as much as you can. What is it telling you about the character and promises of God?

God invites us to trust him, to trust his hesed love, which means trusting him to keep the promises he has made. And remember, even when your faith wavers, or you struggle to trust, to see beyond your immediate circumstances, God has bound himself to you in Christ. Our Lord has promised to be with you no matter what you’re going through or how you feel, and has committed himself to bringing you all the way home.

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