Hebrew Words for ‘Grace’ in the OT


Given this blog is called ‘Standing in Grace’, I’ve decided to write semi-regular posts on the topic of grace. Here’s the first one that came into my mind, a question really. What are the Hebrew words that are translated as ‘grace’ in our English Bibles? Can that help us understand grace better?

As it turns out, the word ‘grace’ doesn’t occur that often in our English translations. It’s there 8 times in the NIV and 6 times in the ESV.  An example is Psalm 45:2 “You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever” (NIV). The words behind them are the Hebrew words heyn (‘grace’) or tahanun (‘plea for grace’, see Ps 86:6 in the ESV) or hanan (‘show grace’, see Isa 26:10 in the NIV). These numbers seemed small. Could grace be only a minor theme in the OT?

Thankfully that’s not the case. My initial research only demonstrated the limitations of simple English word studies. The good news is that there are lots of verses about grace in the Old Testament. The most important word behind most of them is that verb from Isaiah 26:10 –  hanan – which means ‘show grace’ or ‘be gracious’. It’s sometimes translated ‘show favour’ or ‘show mercy’ and it occurs many times in the OT. These verses reveal great truths about our gracious God. Let’s look at five examples from the ESV with the words translating hanan in italics.

“And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Ex 33:19)

“But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has he cast them from his presence until now.” (2 Kings 13:23)

“Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me! O LORD, be my helper!” (Ps 30:10)

“As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!” (Ps 41:4)

“Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.” (Isa 30:18)

From these verses we can see that being gracious is core to who God is. According to Exodus 33 it is tied with his goodness and mercy. It is part of his ‘name’ that he declares to Moses. God is a god who shows grace.

The verse from 2 Kings shows that his grace is related to his compassion. He had the right to punish his rebellious people but because of who he is, and the covenant he had with the patriarchs, he was gracious. He withheld the punishment they deserved.

From the verses from Psalms we can see that it is right for God’s people to appeal for grace from God. There were in fact many other examples from the Psalms. God wants us to ask him to be gracious when we are struggling with sin, guilt and suffering.

There’s more that could be said, and I’m realising that I’m only just starting out here, but we can see that our God is full of grace, and this is just as true in the OT as it is in the NT. The God who has shown us grace in Christ is the same God who showed grace time and time again to his rebellious people in Israel’s history. When you read verses that have phrases like ‘be gracious’ or ‘show favour’ there’s a good chance you’re reading a verse with that word hanan behind it. Praise God that we now have received his grace and continue to stand in his grace. May we continue to stand there.




Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash