Grace seems to be in short supply these days. Maybe people are too wrapped up in their opinions to give grace to anyone who disagrees with them. On a more basic level, maybe they don’t know what grace really means.
I thought I did. Until I studied the word.
Grace: abstract or concrete?
I’ve been a Christian since high school, so I can rattle off the churchy definitions of grace: unmerited favor, getting what you don’t deserve. Well, that’s nice … but abstract. I don’t know about you, but I can wrap my head around concrete images more easily than abstract concepts.
Thankfully, Hebrew is concrete.
Early Hebrew letters were pictures. Although the shapes of the letters changed over time, the ideas attached to the pictures didn’t. That gives the words incredible depth of meaning. And a concrete visual for understanding grace.
(Friends, writing about grace is humbling. I’m not a Bible scholar; I’m just a believer who wants to know more about God. So here goes.)
The Hebrew word for grace (chen) literally means beauty or loveliness. That doesn’t sound anything like grace, right? But wait—the individual letters hold more layers of meaning.
Loveliness in the letters’ meanings
Chen is spelled with two letters:
Reading right to left, chet [pronounced khet] comes first. A long time ago, that letter looked more like a fence than it does today; but the concept persists. The fence picture means private, separated from the outside. The second letter, nun [noon], originally was a sprouted seed. It’s a fish now, but it still means activity and life. So, in old Hebrew (also called Paleo Hebrew), those two letters mean “to separate from the outside to protect life.”
Chen is also the root for two related words that mean to favor and to encamp. Collectively, those three words are found more than 250 times throughout the Hebrew Old Testament.
How the words hang together
What do beauty, protection, separation, favor, and camping have to do with each other? How do we get “grace” from all that?
Here’s where it gets take-your-breath-away cool. Briefly, here are examples of each related word.
Noah found favor [CHEN] in the eyes of the LORD (Genesis 6:8). (Some translations say “favor;” others, like the NKJV, say “grace.”) And … Noah’s name is chen spelled backwards! In Paleo Hebrew, Noah literally means “the heir separated from the outside.” Think about that. Noah’s name is the perfect picture of what God did for him!
More examples exist with Moses. In Exodus 33:13-14, he said, “I pray You, if I have found favor [CHEN] in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You …” And [God] said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments for the second time, He passed before Moses and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, is compassionate and gracious [CHANNUN], slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6 BSB).
Also: God told the Israelites to camp [CHANAH] near the Tabernacle (Numbers 1:52). God inclines Himself to those who draw near to Him.
Finally, God’s favor for His people is another way of saying He finds them beautiful.
So grace is both how God sees us and what He does for us!
One consistent message
Those examples underscore that grace is not a New Testament concept but has been part of God’s dealings with His people since the beginning of time.
And He didn’t intend it just for the Israelites. Early in the Old Testament, God said He’d extend His grace to all nations grafted into Israel. All would be counted the same (Exodus 12:49).
The message of chen courses consistently throughout the Bible. God considers His people beautiful and favored; He will give them life and protect them from outside forces. If we want to encamp near God with His protection, we must receive His grace.
God’s grace through Jesus Christ is the ultimate way He has revealed His love for us.
We live in a fallen world where bad things happen. But God provides protection, grace, and a host of other spiritual blessings to keep us from the evil one.
Putting it all together
Now can you picture the Hebrews pitching their tents around the Tabernacle? God Himself hedging them with His protection? The Hebrews didn’t do anything to deserve God’s grace. We can’t, either. But if we seek to be in right relationship with Him and obey Him, God freely extends His grace—that fence, that hedge about us—that protects us spiritually in ways we won’t fully comprehend this side of heaven.
John Stott said, “Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues.” Now that you have a concrete, visual depiction of grace in your mind, how might it change your life and actions? Share your thoughts in the comments!