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Folks around the Rabbit Room find a lot of joy in discovering foreign words that express ideas our English dictionaries have no entry for.
We nod in appreciation when someone quotes C. S. Lewis describing the German word sehnsucht as “the inconsolable longing in the human heart for ‘we know not what.’” We rejoice when Jennifer Trafton throws the Welch concept hiraeth into the mix, explaining it as “homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or even a home that never existed at all.” We only have incomplete, working definitions for these words, because they don’t quite translate into English. Yet these words describe our own hearts in a way we English-speakers don’t quite know how.
In his new book so aptly titled Inexpressible, Michael Card gives us a new (in an ancient sort of way) foreign word. Except this time, it’s not a word we have found that describes the character of our hearts. Instead, it’s a word God uses in Scripture to describe the character of his: the Hebrew word hesed. With nearly 250 occurrences in the Old Testament and a myriad of interpretations across translations, hesed is two inexhaustible syllables that press at the boundaries of what any language can communicate. It’s holy speech that doesn’t quite translate into human understanding. And yet, Michael Card has taken on the monumental task of beginning to help us wrap our minds and hearts around what it means. Our incomplete, working definition? “When the person from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.” It’s a word that describes God’s heart in a way we are still trying to grasp.
We encounter hesed first on Sinai with Moses, enveloped in the cloud of the presence of Yahweh, who reveals himself to Moses as “slow to anger and rich in hesed and truth, maintaining hesed to a thousand generations” (Exodus 24:6). From this encounter of the God of hesed, the story of hesed unfolds, and Michael Card leads his reader through those thousand generations of the word. With very possibly the largest range of word meaning in the Hebrew language, each translation—love, lovingkindness, mercy, grace, pity, devotion, beauty, and others—attempts to express the inexpressible character of Yahweh.
Reading Card’s book is something of a scavenger hunt and something of a story, each chapter unfolding a new use, encounter, associated word, object, or expression of hesed. We follow the Israelites through their years of wandering and we hear hesed sung again and again as a refrain: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his hesed endures forever” (1 Chronicles 16:34). We walk with David through the valley of the shadow and come out on the other side because we can each say with him, “Surely goodness and hesed will follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). And when all Israel is failing to follow the law of the One who leads them, we hear the assurance of the Lord that what he truly desires from his people is “hesed and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), that they would return to him what he has so freely offered them. So then, the call to live out hesed pierces our hearts as well, and we hear the prophets call us to “do justice, love hesed, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Instances of hesed in the life of God’s people continue on and on until the Old Testament ends and the New begins. There, Michael Card shows us hesed again, not as a word, but as a man: Christ himself, “the incarnation of hesed, full of grace and truth.”
“In the end,” Michael Card explains, “hesed is as much a world as a word”—the world of God’s character, his heart for his people, and the story of his relationship with them. It’s an inexpressible world, yes—and it’s the world Michael Card invites us to enter through his book.
Somewhere among her nearly 2,000 poems, Emily Dickinson wrote one of the best recommendations I have found for approaching truths that are too much to be understood, let alone expressed:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
The truth of the word hesed and the world that it unfolds is too bright for our “infirm delight,” our stammering tongues, our earthly dictionaries. Perhaps someday, when our eyes and our minds and our hearts are new, it won’t blind us so much, and we’ll grasp a one-word definition for the heart of God. But I have my doubts. For now, Michael Card has offered us in Inexpressible the truth of hesed told “slant” enough—through a scavenger-hunt-story of translations and example passages—that we can begin to grasp its reality in our lives. And as hesed dazzles us gradually, we may find ourselves not blind, but instead, catching sight of the heart of God in the corners of our eyes.