In the midst of the majestic angelic presentation of the glory and character of Yahweh on the mount, Moses is informed that Yahweh is “abundant in goodness and truth”. The greatness of what is annunciated here is somewhat veiled by the brevity of the expression. There is here a deep and broad insight into the character of the Father once we pause to meditate on the words used.

Goodness—Chesed

“Goodness” is an unfortunate translation of the Hebrew word chesed. The word chesed does not convey a concept of “good” but really carries the idea of “mercy or loving kindness”. It could be that the translators used “goodness” in an attempt to distinguish this word from that rendered “merciful” earlier in this verse.

So how do we explore what chesed means? In line with other parts of Scripture where the char­acter of the Father is stated, there is no detailed expansion of what each word means. God never says, “My holiness and character mean exactly this or that”. Instead the Father reveals His character in His acts in relation to the very lives of His people. We may wonder why the Father adopts this way of revealing Himself. The Greeks philosophised about God by a search for abstract principles and for wis­dom by an intellectual method, but in so doing lost a sense of the reality of God. It is in action that the power and beauty of the character of the Father is revealed. As Yahweh tells us in Jeremiah 9:24: “Let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am Yahweh which exercise lovingkindness [chesed] judgment, and righteous­ness in the earth”. So the Father would have us look at His actions to learn the meaning of chesed.

The first occurrence of chesed in Scripture is in Genesis 19, in relation to the angelic rescue of Lot before Sodom was obliterated. In verse 29 we are told, “God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow”. The chapter paints a sordid picture of the people of Sodom and we wonder why Lot had not long ago left a city that was such a cesspit of iniquity. Then there is the sorry and sad condition of Lot’s family, such that only Lot, his wife and two daughters believe the angels’ warning of the imminent destruction of Sodom. Sadly, Lot and his family delay and stall in their reluctance to leave Sodom. So reluctant are they to leave that the angels, after many entreaties, resort to taking them by the hand and leading them out. Once away from Sodom Lot realises how merciful Yahweh has been to him and exclaims to the angel (v19), “thou hast magnified thy mercy [chesed]… in saving my life”. Would we have exhibited such chesed (lovingkindness) to Lot? Would we have been so understanding of his reluctance to leave such a hateful and evil city? The fact that Yahweh bears with the frailty and failings of Lot and still shows His tender mercy to him wonderfully demon­strates the greatness of the Father’s chesed. What a comfort to know that Yahweh changes not and His loving kindness is still available today.

Another example of chesed is in Exodus 15. After the miraculous deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea, the people sing, “Thou in thy mercy [chesed] hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed”. Yahweh had heard the cries of Israel under the cruel hand of Pharaoh in Egypt (Exod 3:7), and delivered them. He had responded to their cries at being trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, and delivered them. Yahweh had shown great mercy to them in their desperate straits. Returning to Exodus 34, we note that chesed occurs again in verse 7 in the phrase “keeping mercy [che­sed] for thousands”. This amplifies the expression of verse 6, “abundant in chesed”. Yahweh’s mercy is not reserved for the few but is available for the many. These words are further amplified in Exodus 20:6, “Shewing mercy [chesed] unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments”. From this discern a key principle. Yahweh’s mercy (chesed) is selective and conditional. Yahweh is not capricious in the bestowal of His mercy. It is for those that “love Him and keep his commandments”. Similarly in Psalm 103:17,18 we read, “The mercy [chesed] of Yahweh is… to such as remember his commandments”. This is at once a source of com­fort and concern. For those that have an eye to doing the Father’s will, this is a cause of great comfort. For those that only wish to make a fair appearance of doing the Father’s commandments in the eyes of man, this signals impending doom.

This dimension to Yahweh’s mercy is drawn upon by Paul in his speech at Antioch (Acts 13:34) where he shows that the resurrection of Christ is because of the “sure mercies of David” referenced in Isaiah 55:3. This may prompt the question as to why the mercies to David are sure? The root of this thought is undoubtedly from the promises to David, where it is said of his seed (Christ) that, “My mercy [chesed] shall not depart from away from him, as I took it from Saul”. What a stark warning this is to us. We will recall that Saul departed from Yahweh, and so Yahweh departed from him. When in dis­tress at Mt Gilboa, surrounded by the Philistines, Saul cried to Yahweh, but there was no answer, no mercy, and Saul was slain on Gilboa. How deso­late and hopeless was Saul’s situation away from Yahweh’s mercy.

But in contrast when David fell to the depths of committing murder and adultery, he records the blessedness of being forgiven of his sins and says, “he that trusteth in Yahweh, mercy [chesed] shall compass him about” (Psa 32:10). For “with the merciful thou wilt show thyself merciful”.

Truth—Emeth

In returning to Exodus 34:6 we note that “mercy” (chesed) is not used alone, it is coupled with the word “truth”. The expression is “abundant in good­ness [mercy] and truth”. Before exploring how these two concepts are linked here, we do well to consider what is meant in the word “truth”. Truth is translated from the Hebrew emeth. Gesenius defines emeth as “firmness, uprightness, stability, truth (opposite to falsehood), fidelity in which one is consistent and performs promises”. Hence the word encompasses a broader concept than our English word “truth”. In many places in Scripture emeth carries the same meaning as the English word “truth”. For example, in regard to the promises to David, it says in Psalm 132:11, Yahweh hath sworn in truth unto David. Or in Psalm 91:4, under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler”. How secure we should be in our faith knowing that Yahweh is always true to His word. What a contrast to the devious ways of men of the flesh. Politicians often mouth high sounding words and promises, and people the world over have learnt that such promises are all too often broken.

In addition the word emeth is used in relation to Yahweh acting according to His truth. Hence we also find emeth used in contexts of judgment according to truth. So Nehemiah in his prayer of chapter 9 says, “thou hast done right [emeth], but we have done wickedly”, by which he acknowledges that Yahweh’s judgments in sending Israel into captivity are right.

Returning to Exodus 34:6 we have the words chesed and emeth together in the expression “abundant in goodness and truth”. In fact there are over thirty such places in Scripture where these words are together. Sometimes these words are mentioned in the context of the covenant. For example Psa 25:10 “All the paths of Yahweh are mercy [chesed] and truth [emeth] unto such as keep his covenant…”.

The first occurrence of chesed and emeth is in Genesis 24:27. Abraham’s servant has travelled to Haran to find a wife for Isaac and he rejoices in the providential hand of Yahweh in bringing him directly in contact with Rebekah. He thanks Yah­weh that he has “not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth”. Why use these two terms here? Because Yahweh has been true to His covenant and is both merciful to Abraham in finding the right wife for Isaac, and also true to His promises. It is interesting to ponder that all the hope of brethren and sisters in Jesus Christ is bound up in the abun­dant mercy and truth of Yahweh. If Yahweh were not true to His promises would we have hope? If He is not abundant in mercy towards us how could we stand before Him? Perhaps this realisation led David to using these terms as a salutation—“mercy and truth be with thee” (2 Sam 15:20).

Another important aspect of chesed and emeth is the tension between them, particularly in human affairs. David records the requirement for kings which emphasises truth—“He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Sam 23:3). Yet in Hebrews the requirements of the priest emphasise mercy—“Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way” (Heb 5:2). How are these principles balanced? We often have difficulty in balancing them. A brother may be adamant that a stand for truth is essential on a particular matter. But to make such a stand for truth (emeth) may be to leave no room for mercy. Yet sometimes showing mercy may prevent another brother or sister being deeply hurt. Another brother is more inclined to be merciful, perhaps unknow­ingly at the expense of the Father’s truth, with unintended encouragement to others to disregard what is right.

How marvellous it is that the Father can so perfectly balance what often appear to be opposing principles in human affairs. Psalm 85:10 captures the thought: “Mercy and truth are met together”. How instructive it is as we read the record of the ministry of the life of our Lord to see these princi­ples so perfectly balanced; whether it be the way the Lord handled the situation of the woman taken in adultery, or his dealing with Judas.

Similarly the Father has showed His abundance of mercy and truth towards all in the covenants of promise. For though truth requires that the law of sin and death cannot be broken, and we all die, yet the Father’s mercy provides a means whereby we can identify with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and have hope of resurrection from the dead.