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Holman Bible Dictionary

Compassion

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To feel passion with someone, to enter sympathetically into their sorrow and pain. Compassion in English translations represents at least five Hebrew and eight Greek terms. Chamal means “to regret,” “be sorry for,” “grieve over,” or “spare someone.” Thus the rich man “refrained” (NIV) from taking his own sheep and took the poor man's ( 2 Samuel 12:4 ). Pharaoh's daughter “had pity” on the baby Moses (Exodus 2:6 ). David spared Mephibosheth for Jonathan's sake (2 Samuel 21:7 ). Often it expresses God's anger and decision no longer to show mercy and pity (Zechariah 11:6 ). Beyond this the Bible points to God's plans to again have compassion for His people (Joel 2:18; compare Malachi 3:17; Genesis 19:16; 2 Chronicles 36:15; Isaiah 63:9 ).

Chen represents what is aesthetically beautiful. It means then to possess grace and charm and to be gracious. God looked to pour out a spirit of grace or “compassion” ( Zechariah 12:10 NRSV) on His people so they would mourn for the one they pierced. Bildad told Job to “implore the compassion of the Almighty” ( Job 8:5 NAS).

Chus is an emotional expression of crying and feeling with someone who is hurting. With the emotion goes the intent to help. God could forbid Israel to have such pity ( Deuteronomy 7:16 ). God refuses to have pity on a disobedient people (Ezekiel 5:11 ). God's history had been a history of compassion in which He did not destroy His people (Ezekiel 20:17 ). God's people should pray for Him to “spare” them (Joel 2:17 ). Jonah had “compassion” (Jonah 4:10 NAS) on a plant but did not want God to have compassion on a city ( Jonah 4:11 ). Nehemiah asked for “compassion” (Nehemiah 13:22 ). Chus most often appears in Hebrew in a formula which may be translated, “Do not let your eye cry over, or have regrets over” something.

Nichum or nocham means to “be sorry for,” “regret,” “comfort,” “console.” It is more than emotion. It includes a will to change the situation. Thus God “was sorry” He made people ( Genesis 6:6 NAS). Still God acted to preserve human life ( Genesis 8:21 ), for He identifies with human weakness. In His basic nature He does not “change His mind” (1 Samuel 15:29 NAS), translating Hebrew nicham . Still Scripture describes times when Yahweh “repented” (Exodus 32:14; 2 Samuel 24:16; Jonah 3:10 as examples). In His freedom God can announce one set of plans, see the response and weakness of the people affected, and decide not to carry out the plans. Thus Hosea 11:8 concludes, “my repentings are kindled together” (KJV) or “all my compassion is aroused” (NAS). At another time God can say, “I will have no compassion” ( Hosea 13:14 NAS).

Racham is related to the Hebrew word for “womb” and expresses a mother's ( Isaiah 49:15 ) or father's (Psalm 103:13 ) love and compassion, a feeling of pity and devotion to a helpless child. It is a deep emotional feeling seeking a concrete expression of love (Genesis 43:14; Deuteronomy 13:17 ). This word always expresses the feeling of the superior or more powerful for the inferior or less powerful and thus never expresses human feeling for God. The word seeks to bring security to the life of the one for whom compassion is felt. The majority of Bible uses of racham have God as subject. Compare Hosea 2:4 ,Hosea 2:4,2:23; Zechariah 1:16; Zechariah 10:6 . God “has compassion on all he had made” (Psalm 145:9 ).

The New Testament builds on the Old Testament understanding of God's compassion. The central New Testament words are eleeo and splagxnizomai . The first—eleeo —is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate most of the Hebrew words listed above. It represents the emotion aroused by another person's undeserved suffering or pain. It is something an orator tries to kindle in an audience or a lawyer seeks to elicit from a judge. Jesus commanded the Pharisees to learn God's desire for compassion (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7 ). Jesus said even slaves should practice compassion as He taught Peter about forgiveness (Matthew 18:33 ). God showed compassion in healing the demoniac (Mark 5:19 ). Christians need to show compassion to those who waver or doubt (Jude 1:22 ). God's commands for compassion from disciples finds its roots in the nature of God, who is full of compassion (Ephesians 2:4; 1 Peter 1:3 ). See Mercy.

Splagxnizomai is related to the Greek noun for inward parts much as Hebrew rachemim . Here is located the center of personal feelings and emotions. Before Christ's appearance the Greeks apparently did not use this word to speak of compassion and mercy, it being more closely related to courage. It is not clear when the shift in meaning to compassion occurred. Some of the apocryphal Jewish writings before Christ do use the term to mean mercy. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, the master had compassion and forgave the servant's debt (Matthew 18:27 ). The prodigal son's father had compassion on him (Luke 15:20 ). The Good Samaritan had compassion for the injured traveler (Luke 10:33 ). Jesus had compassion on the crowds (Mark 6:34 ). People needing help asked Jesus for compassion (Mark 9:22; compare Matthew 9:36; Matthew 20:34 ). Paul saw compassion as a quality expected of believers (Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12 ). Paul said he related to his readers in the compassion of Christ (Philippians 1:8 ), that is, the quality is not an achievement by the believer but a result of being in Christ. The love of God dwells only in those who are compassionate to a person in need (1 John 3:17; compare Ephesians 4:32; 1 Peter 3:8 ). Compassion finds its source in God's compassion (James 5:11 ). In compassion He has provided salvation and forgiveness (Luke 1:78 ).

Oiktiro is related to lamentation and grief for the dead and came to mean sympathetic participation in grief. Such sympathy or compassion stands ready to help the one who has suffered loss. In the Greek Old Testament translation oiktiro translates words related to chen and racham . Paul taught that God is the Father and source of compassion (2 Corinthians 1:3; compare James 5:11 ). He has total freedom in exercising compassion (Romans 9:15 ). Humans can sacrifice themselves for God's causes only because God has sacrificed Himself in mercy (Romans 12:1; compare Luke 6:36; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12 ).

Sumpatheo means to suffer what someone else suffers. It came to mean to suffer with, alongside, to sympathize. Peter listed it among the basic Christian virtues ( 1 Peter 3:8 ). Having come to earth and endured all kinds of human temptations, Jesus exercises sympathy for our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15 ). The writer of Hebrews could recall his readers' experience of having sympathy for and thus helping others imprisoned for their faith (Hebrews 10:33-34 ).

Metriopatheo refers to the ability to be moderate in emotions or passions. An Old Testament or human minister realizes personal weaknesses and thus moderates personal anger at another's weaknesses ( Hebrews 5:2 ).


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Compassion'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=1369. 1991.

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