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Holman Bible Dictionary
Mercy in the Old Testament Three main Hebrew roots involve the idea of mercy. 1. Racham /rachamim This word family consistently has the meaning of showing mercy, compassion, or pity. Related to the word for womb, it may have the connotation of a mother's affection or of the bond between siblings. This sense of a mother's compassion for her child is found in 1 Kings 3:26 , and a similar expression describes Joseph's feelings for his brother in Genesis 43:30 . Likewise, God's mercy is often likened to family relationships: as a father to his children (Jeremiah 31:20; Psalm 103:13; Isaiah 63:15-16 ), a husband to a wife (Isaiah 54:6-8; Hosea 2:19 ), a brother to a brother (Amos 1:11 ), even as a mother toward a nursing child (Isaiah 49:15 ).
God's mercy is bound up with His covenant with Israel. He is merciful to them because He chose them (Exodus 33:19; 2 Kings 13:23; Isaiah 54:10 , Isaiah 63:7 ). God's mercy is never just a feeling but is expressed by His action: providing for Israel in the wilderness (Nehemiah 9:19; Isaiah 49:10 ) and delivering her from enemies (Psalm 69:16-21; Psalm 79:8-11; Isaiah 30:18; Jeremiah 42:11-12 ). When Israel turned from God, He showed no pity (Isaiah 9:17; Isaiah 27:11; Jeremiah 13:14; Jeremiah 16:5; Hosea 1:6-8; Hosea 2:4 ). On the other hand, He is a forgiving God and shows mercy to a penitent people (Psalm 25:4-7; Psalm 40:11-12; Psalm 51:1-4; Proverbs 28:13-14; Isaiah 54:7; Isaiah 55:7; Lamentations 3:31-33; Daniel 9:9; Micah 7:19; Habakkuk 3:2 ). He is merciful in restoring the nation (Psalm 102:13; Isaiah 14:1; Isaiah 49:13; Jeremiah 12:15; Jeremiah 30:18; Jeremiah 33:26; Ezekiel 39:25; Zechariah 1:16; Zechariah 10:6 ) and renewing His friendship with them (Hosea 2:19 ,Hosea 2:19,2:23 ). God's mercy is the very source of His people's life (Psalm 103:4; Psalm 119:1 ).
Racham is also used to describe human mercy or lack of it. Israel's enemies were merciless ( Isaiah 13:18 , Isaiah 47:6; Jeremiah 6:23; Jeremiah 21:7; Jeremiah 50:42 ). In legal contexts, Israel was to show no mercy to criminals (Deuteronomy 13:8; Deuteronomy 19:13 ,Deuteronomy 19:13,19:21 ). On the other hand, God expected His people to be merciful to their neighbors (1 Kings 8:31-32; Proverbs 3:29; Proverbs 21:13 ). He especially expected their mercy toward the poor and needy (Zechariah 7:9-10 ).
2. Chesed Chesed occurs 245 times in the Old Testament, 127 in Psalms alone. The Septuagint translators regularly rendered it with the Greek word for mercy, eleos . Likewise, the King James version translates it regularly as mercy or kindness. See Kindness . Other English versions render it as “steadfast love” (NRSV), “lovingkindness” (NAS), “loyalty” or “constant love” (REB), “love” or “unfailing love” (NIV), “faithfulness” (TEV).
Like racham, chesed describes a variety of human relationships: husband and wife ( Genesis 20:13 ), next-of-kin (Genesis 24:49 ), father and son (Genesis 47:29 ), host and guest (Rahab and the spies—Joshua 2:12-14 ), friends like David and Jonathan (1Samuel 20:8,1 Samuel 20:14-17 ), king and subjects (2 Samuel 2:5 ). Also like racham , it expresses itself in action: Rahab delivered the spies; Jonathan protected David from Saul. The relationship is always reciprocal. One who experiences the chesed of another is to reciprocate when the opportunity presents itself. Thus, the spies promised protection for Rahab, and David pledged to protect the house of Jonathan. An element of covenantal fidelity was involved. An element of mercy was also involved. Each sought to meet the other's need. Since one can scarcely meet a need of God, this covenantal aspect of mercy was expressed in God's requirement to show mercy to others. This was often coupled with a command for justice ( Micah 6:8; compare Hosea 12:6; Zechariah 7:9 ).
God expects His people to show chesed to one another because He shows chesed to them—to individuals such as Abraham ( Genesis 24:12-14 ), Jacob (Genesis 32:10 ), David (2 Samuel 7:15 ), and Job (2 Samuel 10:12 ). Above all, He was merciful to His chosen people Israel (Exodus 15:13; Psalm 107:8 ,Psalms 107:8,107:15 ,Psalms 107:15,107:21 ,Psalms 107:21,107:31; Isaiah 63:7; Jeremiah 31:2-6 ). The linkage of God's covenant and His chesed is explicit in such phrases as “keeping covenant and showing chesed” (1 Kings 8:23; Deuteronomy 7:9; Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 9:32; Daniel 9:4; compare Psalm 106:45; Isaiah 54:10 ).
A final characteristic of God's chesed is its permanence (Psalm 23:6; Psalm 25:6; Psalm 103:17; Psalm 117:2; Isaiah 54:8 ). This is often expressed in the set phrase, “for the Lord is good, his mercy (chesed) is everlasting” or “his mercy endureth forever” (Psalm 100:5; Psalm 106:1; Psalm 107:1; Psalm 118:1; 1 Chronicles 16:34; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 2 Chronicles 7:3; Ezra 3:11; Jeremiah 33:11; compare Psalm 118:2-4; Psalm 136:1-26 ).
3. Chanan/chen This is the third Hebrew word family involving mercy and pity. Job used it in appealing for pity (Job 19:21 ) and with it the psalmist described one who is generous to the poor (Psalm 37:21; Psalm 112:5; compare Proverbs 14:21-23; Proverbs 19:17; Proverbs 28:8 ). The latter examples show how chanan involves not only pity but also being gracious. It is in this sense that the word is applied to God, referring to His gracious and generous nature.
4. Conclusion It is difficult to draw precise distinctions between the various words used in the Old Testament for God's mercy and grace. Racham , chesed , and chanan all refer to the one gracious, forgiving, loving God who is forever faithful in reaching out to His people in their need. Nowhere is their interrelatedness more evident than in the following recurrent Old Testament liturgy which combines all three: “God is merciful ( racham ) and gracious (chana ), slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (chesed ) and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2 ).
Mercy in the New Testament Three word families express the idea of mercy in the New Testament.
1. Splagchna Splagchna literally refers to the upper human organs (heart, liver, lungs). This usage appears in the grim depiction of Judas' death in Acts 1:18 . Much like the Hebrew rachamim , splagchna developed the derived sense of strong emotional feelings, particularly of compassion and affection. The word is often used of Jesus' compassion—for the multitudes ( Matthew 9:36 , Matthew 14:14 , Matthew 15:32 ), for the blind (Matthew 20:34 ), for a leper (Mark 1:41 ), for a possessed child (Mark 9:20-27 ), for a widow's plight (Luke 7:13 ). His parables use the term to describe the mercy of a master on his indebted servant (Matthew 18:27 ), the compassion of a father for his prodigal son (Luke 15:20 ), and a Samaritan's pity for a wounded Jew (Luke 10:33 ). With this word Paul urged the Corinthians to renew their affection for him (2 Corinthians 6:12; compare 2 Corinthians 7:15 ), exhorted the Philippians to mutual love and concern (Philippians 2:1-2 ), and played on the sympathy of Philemon (Philippians 1:7 ,Philemon 1:7,1:12 ,Philemon 1:12,1:20 ). With it, John reminded his readers that one who closes his heart to a brother's need scarcely has God's love (1 John 3:17 ).
2. Oiktirmos This word also means “pity, mercy, compassion” and is used together with splagchna in Colossians 3:12 , Philippians 2:1 , and James 5:11 . It can be used negatively as in Hebrews 10:28 where it describes the merciless justice of the Law. Paul pointed to the positive side of God as “the father of mercies” ( 2 Corinthians 1:3 ), and he urged the Romans to sacrificial service based on God's mercy (2 Corinthians 12:1 ). Christian mercy is rooted in God's mercy, a principle already given by Jesus (Luke 6:36 ).
3. Eleos The most common words in the New Testament for mercy belong to the eleos family. In secular Greek, the word was often viewed as a sign of weakness, a sentimental inclination to be overly lenient. The New Testament does not share in this assessment, having more in common with the Old Testament perspective on God's mercy.
To be sure, the negative aspect appears. Drawing on Exodus 33:19 , Paul showed how God in His sovereign purposes can withdraw His mercies (Romans 9:15-16 ,Romans 9:15-16,9:18 ,Romans 9:18,9:23 ). The total New Testament picture is much brighter. Jesus brought the good news of a merciful, forgiving God. He embodied that good news in Himself, and everywhere He was met by cries and expectations for mercy—from two blind men (Matthew 9:27 ), a woman with a possessed daughter (Matthew 15:22 ), the father of an epileptic boy (Matthew 17:15 ), and by ten lepers (Luke 17:13 ). His healings are themselves testimony to the divine mercy (Mark 5:19 ). Reminiscent of chesed , Jesus' birth and that of John are testimonies that God is both merciful and faithful to His promises (Luke 1:58 ,Luke 1:58,1:72 ,Luke 1:72,1:78 ). Paul had a keen awareness of God's mercy in his own life (1 Corinthians 7:25; 2 Corinthians 4:1; 1Timothy 1:13,1 Timothy 1:16 ), and in restoring his co-worker Epaphroditus to health (Philippians 2:27 ).
God's mercy was shown in His readiness to forgive the penitent sinner (Luke 8:13 ). Especially was it transparent in the atoning work of Christ (Hebrews 2:17 ). Through Christ, God's mercy delivers from the death of sin into life (Ephesians 2:4-5 ) and includes the Gentiles as part of His people (Romans 11:30-32 ). In Christ the mercy of God brings new life (1 Peter 1:3 ) and undergirds the hope of life to come (Jude 1:21 ). In this life the mercy of God is always available for those who approach His throne (Hebrews 4:16 ). The Christian life is lived under this assurance of God's mercy. This is why mercy is often an element in New Testament greetings and benedictions (1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Galatians 6:16; 2 John 1:3; Jude 1:2 ). See Greetings; Benedictions.
Those who experience God's mercy are themselves to be merciful. God does not desire the external trappings of religiosity but deeds of mercy to others (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7; Matthew 23:23 ). One who shows no mercy to others cannot expect God's mercy (Matthew 18:33-34; James 2:13 ). Mercy is a mark of discipleship (Matthew 5:7 ). Disciples show deeds of mercy to a neighbor (Luke 10:36-37 ) and perform them cheerfully (Romans 12:8 ). God is mercy, and one who shares in God's wisdom shares His mercy (James 3:17 ).
4. Conclusion As with the Old Testament, the New Testament treatment of God's mercy cannot be separated from His love, His grace, and His faithfulness. They are all part of the same fabric. The difference, of course, is that the New Testament writers had come to see the mercy of God in a much brighter light in the face of Jesus Christ. He was the ultimate manifestation of God's mercy, the assurance of that mercy for believers, and the basis of their own mercy in their relationships with others. John Polhill
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Mercy, Merciful'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/m/mercy-merciful.html. 1991.