Psalm 33:1-9, 13-15, 20-22
Different parts of the Bible are written in different styles. The Bible contains history, prophecy, letters, and poetry. We should take the style of scripture seriously and read it accordingly. It’s the same reason that we have different subjects in school – you’d never read Shakespeare the same way you read your geography textbook.
With that in mind, it’s important to know that the Psalms are poetry. All those things you studied about poetry – maybe last week, maybe half a century ago – they all apply here. For instance, word choice means everything in poetry. This is true for the Psalms as a whole, and for Psalm 33 in particular. This psalm conveys something particular about God and who we are as God’s people, and it uses all its artistic depth to do it.
Remember that the Psalms were written in Hebrew, and what we have here is a translation. It can be hard to take carefully-chosen, poetic words from one language and give them the same sense in another. Here, we have a kind of disappointing translation of an incredibly important word. The word appears three times in the entire psalm and twice in our selection this morning. We read the word as “steadfast love”, which sounds a little like the dedication you might have for your favorite brand of laundry detergent. Not exactly awe-inspiring.
But the word in Hebrew means so much more. The word is hesed. Say it with me: hesed. You have to get that nice throaty sound in it – just don’t accidentally spit on the person in front of you when you do it. Hesed. Hesed is the word here translated as “steadfast love”, which, come on, total yawn. The word is also sometimes translated as “lovingkindness” or “covenantal love”. Also not totally inspiring. It can mean mercy, kindness, love, faithfulness, graciousness, and that’s just a start. The word appears nearly 250 times in the Old Testament, and half of those are in the Psalms alone, so we get a sense of what the word means in its usage, even if we can’t quite translate it.
Jacob asks his son Joseph for hesed on his deathbed when he asks not to be buried in Egypt. Naomi wishes hesed for her daughter-in-law Ruth after her son, Ruth’s husband, dies and leaves them without recourse. In Deuteronomy, God is described as a faithful God, keeping a covenant of hesed to a thousand generations of those who keep God’s commandments. In Micah 6:8, the beloved passage about what our God requires, it reads that God asks us to do justice, love hesed, and walk humbly with God.
Hesed is a word of relationship. You hesed someone, not something. Hesed evokes deep relational faithfulness, a love that we call from each other because we know it first from God. Call it steadfast love or lovingkindness or whatever, but know that hesed love means ultimate, devoted, true, loving faithfulness from one to another.
If I seem a little carried away about this word, it’s because I am. This word means life to me. I don’t want to go a single day without knowing that every inch of me finds grounding in God’s hesed. It might even be so important to me that I have it permanently inked on my foot so I’ll never forget that my every step is grounded in God’s hesed.
This faithful, relational love finds expression in many ways. Here, in Psalm 33, we receive assurance that “the earth is full of the hesed of the Lord”. After calling on us to praise God with music, with songs, with even raucous shouting, this psalm tells us why: we praise God for God’s hesed made known in the wondrous order of creation. Creation itself shows us God’s faithfulness. The same love God showed in speaking creation into existence is the love we want to experience in our lives now. God is worthy of praise, not merely because God made a creation that is pretty or gives us passing satisfaction. God is worthy of praise because the very order of creation reveals that our God is a faithful God, one who wishes to provide for us, who made the earth and all life in it, who emptied God’s very hesed into all that is and lives.
If hesed is a relational word, one describing the dedicated and faithful love that one gives to another, then creation itself isn’t a passive recipient of our admiration. Creation itself shows us that God loves us, that God continues to love us, that God invites that same faithfulness and love from us. We don’t worship creation; we worship the God of creation. We don’t admire creation; we admire our Creator. We don’t love the outdoors; we love that being outdoors reveals God’s hesed.
This means something for we who love God. It means that God’s faithfulness in creation shows we can trust God. God made plants that continually produce oxygen and sustain life . God made water that evaporates and condenses and falls as water again, life-giving and fresh. God made animals that fit into an ecosystem of predator and prey, herbivore and herb, balancing and self-sustaining. We know God is faithful because of God’s faithfulness in designing all things.
It means that we, living in God’s hesed, care for this creation given to us in love. We do not merely admire it as if we are removed from it. We do not abuse it as if it means nothing to us or to God. We do not neglect its care as if we are not a part of it. This creation must be honored, respected, and cared for as the work of God’s faithfulness that it is. We cannot pretend that it is merely a pretty thing, or good only for what it gives us. The earth is full of God’s hesed, the product of God’s own word, and we ourselves find our place in it. In love for God, we show honor and respect to that which testifies to God.
In the poetry of these words, we move into a place greater than words, a place of deep love and joy, where we, God’s righteous people, cannot but praise God in word and action. As you read this psalm, as you hear [reflect on] the songs from our children about creation, as you work for the health of creation, as the beauty of the earth moves you to greater devotion, love, and service, may it always center you in the one, greatest truth: that God’s faithfulness, God’s hesed, is for you and for all creation. For this glorious gift, thanks be to God.
 In Hebrew, it is written חסד, and is often transliterated as chesed or ḥesed.