The Grace of God Part One
This article begins a study of God’s grace in the Scriptures.
Key Old Testament Words for Grace
The Hebrew Verb. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew verb related to grace is hanan.1 In one form it “has the meaning ‘be gracious’ or ‘show favor.’”2 In another form it means “‘seek favor,’ mainly the favor of God, but also of mankind.”3
In Hebrew the verb hanan is active. It refers to “active acceptance and active favor. To be gracious means to aid the poor, feed the hungry, deliver those in distress from defeat and death.”4
“In all cases ‘hanan’ is a positive term.”5 “It is inconceivable that one can be angry and at the same time show favor. Nor can one receive favor from someone who is at the same time angry. Favor cannot coexist with judgment.”6
The Hebrew Noun. The Hebrew noun that is the counterpart of the verb hanan is hen.7 It appears 67 times in the Old Testament and “has two basic meanings: ‘grace’ and ‘favor.’”8 The word favor is the “more important” meaning, referring to “the positive disposition” one person has toward another.9
The noun can also mean “respect.”10 For example, Proverbs 28:23 states, “He who rebukes a man will find more favor afterward than he who flatters with the tongue.” The word translated “favor” refers to “respect.”
The noun hen appears most often in the familiar expression “find favor in someone’s eyes.”11 For example, “Esther obtained favor in the sight of all who saw her” (Est. 2:15). “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she obtained grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins” (v. 17). “So it was, when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight, and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand” (5:2).
Old Testament scholars D. N. Freedman and J. R. Lundmon said this familiar expression “is more than a mere figure of speech; it describes very concretely what in fact was taken for granted in ancient Israel, as in the rest of the ancient Near East: that favor is shown on the face.” In fact, they point out, “The other Hebrew word most often translated ‘favor’ is ‘panim,’” which means “face.”12
I entreated Your favor with my whole heart; be merciful to me according to Your word (Ps. 119:58). “But now entreat God’s favor, that He may be gracious to us. While this is being done by your hands, will He accept you favorably?” says the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts (Mal. 1:9).
In both of these passages the word translated “favor” is panim, which means “face.”
There is yet another word related to the subject of favor or grace: pana, which means “turn.” God is often asked to “turn” (pana) “and show favor.” The fact that the verb translated “turn” (pana) is related to the noun translated “face” (panim) indicates God is asked to “turn and show His face [in mercy and kindness].”13
David cried out to God, “Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me, for I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have enlarged; bring me out of my distresses!” (Ps. 25:16–17). On another occasion he begged, “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth. Oh, turn to me, and have mercy on me! Give Your strength to Your servant, and save the son of Your maidservant” (86:15–16).
Thus, “to show one’s face then means to be favorably disposed toward a person.”14 By contrast, an angry person’s face is hidden.15 David exclaimed,
How long, O Lᴏʀᴅ? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me? (13:1–2). When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, Lᴏʀᴅ, I will seek.” Do not hide Your face from me; do not turn Your servant away in anger; You have been my help; do not leave me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation (27:8–9). Lᴏʀᴅ, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong; You hid Your face, and I was troubled (30:7).
Though both Hebrew nouns hen and hesed can be translated “kindness” or “mercy,” they involve distinctive concepts. Hesed refers to a covenant relationship between people, while hen does not. As a covenant relationship, hesed has established “rights and obligations” and requires “a favorable attitude from both parties.” A hesed relationship “is meant to be long-term” and “should be kept.”16
By contrast, a hen relationship “is not mutually practiced by both parties. It is given by one to the other, and sustains the relationship only so long as the giver so desires. It can be given for a specific situation only….Unlike ‘hesed,’ ‘hen’ can be withdrawn without consequence, since it is given freely.”17
Old Testament Examples of Angelic and Human Grace
As the two angels whom God sent to Sodom were removing Lot and his family from that city before they would destroy it, Lot said to them, “Indeed now, your servant has found favor [hen] in your sight, and you have increased your mercy which you have shown me by saving my life” (Gen. 19:19).
Years after Jacob had angered his brother, Esau, by stealing his birthright, he had to travel through Edom, where Esau lived. Because Jacob feared Esau, he sent messengers to him with the following message: “Thus your servant Jacob says: ‘I have dwelt with Laban and stayed there until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor [hen] in your sight’” (32:4–5). To appease Esau, Jacob sent several droves of animals as gifts to him before they met each other (vv. 13–21).
When Esau saw Jacob, he ran to meet him, embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him. Then they wept (33:4). Jacob told Esau the purpose of the gifts was “to find favor [hen] in the sight of my lord” (v. 8) and said, “Let me find favor [hen] in the sight of my lord” (v. 15). Esau left Jacob in peace.
In Egypt, Joseph worked as a servant for Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and captain of the guard. “So Joseph found favor [hen] in his sight, and served him. Then he [Potiphar] made him overseer of his house, and all that he had he put under his authority” (39:4).
When Jacob’s death drew near, he told his son Joseph, “Now if I have found favor [hen] in your sight, please…do not bury me in Egypt, but let me lie with my fathers; you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place” (47:29–30).
When Jacob died, “Joseph [now a key official in Egypt] spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, ‘If now I have found favor [hen] in your eyes, please…let me go up and bury my father, and I will come back’” (50:4–5). Pharaoh replied, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear” (v. 6).
After Naomi’s husband and two sons died in Moab, she and her daughter-in-law Ruth moved to Bethlehem in Judah, Naomi’s homeland (Ruth 1). Boaz, a wealthy relative of Naomi’s husband, lived there and owned part of a field where grain was reaped (2:1–3). Ruth asked Naomi for permission to “go to the field, and glean heads of grain after him in whose sight I may find favor [hen].” Naomi said to her, “Go, my daughter” (v. 2). So Ruth began to glean after the reapers (v. 3).
After Boaz learned who she was, he told Ruth to continue gleaning exclusively in his field (vv. 4–9). Ruth “fell on her face, bowed down to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor [hen] in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?’” (v. 10).
Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, said to Eli the priest, “Let your maidservant find favor [hen] in your sight” (1 Sam. 1:18).
David told his friend Jonathan, whose father, King Saul, was seeking to kill David, “Your father certainly knows that I have found favor [hen] in your eyes” (20:3).
When David was fleeing from Saul, he said to Achish, the son of the king of Gath, “If I have now found favor [hen] in your eyes, let them give me a place in some town in the country, that I may dwell there” (27:5).
After King David let Joab bring back David’s rebel son, Absalom, Joab said, “Today your servant knows that I have found favor [hen] in your sight, my lord, O king” (2 Sam. 14:22).
Ziba, whom David appointed to work for Jonathan’s crippled son, said, “I humbly bow before you, that I may find favor [hen] in your sight, my lord, O king!” (16:4).
Proverbs instructs, “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother; for they will be a graceful [hen] ornament on your head, and chains about your neck” (Prov. 1:8–9).
“Keep sound wisdom and discretion; so they will be life to your soul and grace [hen] to your neck” (3:21–22).
- N. Freedman, J.R. Lundmon, ”hanan, hen,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green, translated from Theologisches Worterbuch zum Alten Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 5:22.
- Ibid., 23;
- Ibid., 24.;
- Ibid., 22.;
- Ibid., 24.;
- Ibid., 25;