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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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That (human) disposition that fuels Acts of kindness and mercy. Compassion, a form of love, is aroused within us when we are confronted with those who suffer or are vulnerable. Compassion often produces action to alleviate the suffering, but sometimes geographical distances or lack of means prevent people from acting upon their compassionate feelings. Compassion is not a uniquely Christian response to suffering (cf. Exodus 2:6 ; Luke 10:33 ), even though Christians have unique reasons for nurturing their compassionate dispositions.

The Hebrew (hamal [ חֻמְלָה , חָמַל ], rachuwm [ רַחוּם ]) and Greek (splanchnisomai [ σπλαγχνίζομαι ]) words sometimes translated as "compassion" also bear a broader meaning such as "to show pity, " "to love, " and "to show mercy." Other near synonyms for compassion in English are "to be loved by, " "to show concern for, " "to be tenderhearted, " and "to act kindly."

The Old Testament . God's compassion is freely (Exodus 33:19 ; Romans 9:15 ) and tenderly given, like a mother's (Isaiah 49:15 ) or father's (Hosea 11:8 ) compassion for a child. Yahweh boldly declares, "I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Exodus 33:19 ). While his compassion can be thwarted by disobedience (Deuteronomy 13:17 ; 30:3 ; 2 Chronicles 30:9 ), there are times when his disobedient people's only hope is that his compassion overcomes his anger (Hosea 11:8 ). Yahweh's compassion is rooted in his covenant relationship with his people (2 Kings 13:23 ). Hope for the future (Isaiah 49:13 ; Jeremiah 12:15 ) is also rooted in God's compassion. It is said that compassion follows wrath (Jeremiah 12:15 ; Lamentations 3:32 ), is new each morning (Lamentations 3:22-23 ), and overcomes sin (Psalm 51:1 ; Micah 7:19 ) rather than ignoring it.

Since compassionate Acts flow from compassionate persons, we are not surprised to learn that compassion is constitutive of God's very being (Exodus 34:6 , "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God" ). Echoes of this declaration are found throughout Scripture. God's compassion was essential for the maintenance of the covenant and his people praised him for it continually (Psalm 78:38 ; 86:15 ; 103:13 ; 145:8 ).

"Compassion" is not frequently used with a human subject. It is found, however, in a mother's attitude toward her son (1 Kings 3:26 ), a princess's reaction to an abandoned child (Exodus 2:6 ), and the Ziphites' treatment of Saul (1 Samuel 23:21 ).

The New Testament . The intertestamental literature and the New Testament continue to speak about God as the compassionate one. God's compassion is demonstrated in his Son's ministry for and among his people (Matthew 9:36 ; Mark 6:34 ). The messianic compassion is extended to the helpless crowds (Matthew 9:36 ), the sickly masses (Matthew 14:14 ), the hungry people (Mark 8:2 ), and the blind men (Matthew 20:34 ). The waiting father (Luke 15:20 ) is filled with compassion when he sees his wayward son returning—just as God has compassion on us and accepts us when we repent and return to him.

Believers learn about compassion through example and exhortation. Imitating God and/or Christ has led many to lives of exemplary compassion. The Scriptures also exhort believers to make compassion an integral aspect of their lives (Zechariah 7:9 ; Colossians 3:12 ). Compassion needs to be nurtured and practiced or even this basic love response can grow dull and cold.

David H. Engelhart

See also Love ; Mercy

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Compassion'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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