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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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1. Mercy of God.—Mercy is ‘that essential perfection in God whereby He pities and relieves the miseries of His creatures’ (Cruden). In the OT the mercy of God (חֶסֶר, רַחֲמִים; חֶנַן ‘to show mercy’) is sought and celebrated in (Psalms 51:1, Lamentations 3:22), or more frequently where no connexion with sin is expressed (Psalms 89:1; Psalms 118:1). Sin and the distress which is the consequence of it are not always separated in thought (Psalms 41:4; Psalms 79:8-9).

In the NT a clearer division can be made of places where the mercy spoken of is temporal or spiritual. Those who came to Christ for help asked for mercy, that is, for pity and relief (Matthew 9:27; Matthew 15:22; Matthew 17:15; Matthew 20:30; cf. Mark 5:19). The word used is ἐλεεῖν, while Christ’s twofold response is expressed by σπλαγχνισθείς, ‘moved with compassion,’ and by His act of healing (Matthew 20:34). Along with these may be placed Luke 1:58, Philippians 2:27, 1 Corinthians 7:25, where particular instances of mercy are mentioned. On the other hand, the words ἔλεος, ἐλεεῖν are used of the whole of God’s saving work in Christ (Luke 1:72; Luke 1:78, Romans 11:30, 2 Corinthians 4:1, Ephesians 2:4, 1 Timothy 1:13; 1 Timothy 1:16, Titus 3:3-7, Judges 1:21). In the publican’s prayer, ‘God, be merciful to me the sinner’ (Luke 18:13), the more exact translation is ‘be propitiated’ (ἱλάσθητι), as also in Hebrews 8:12 (ἵλεως). In these places the obstacle of sin is recognized, and the mercy described is such as overcomes sin.

Generally in the NT sin is described not only as the source of human misery, but as itself the greatest evil from which men need to be delivered; and accordingly the work of God’s mercy is to save from sin (see Ephesians 2:4-10, Titus 3:3-7). In Romans 11:30-32 something is said of the Divine purpose in permitting sin, so that we may believe that the severities of God’s judgments are not inconsistent with ‘that essential perfection of mercy whereby He pities and relieves the miseries of His creatures.’ But of this as creatures we have not the final right to judge (Romans 9:15; Romans 9:23). A deepened sense of the hopelessness of separation from God brings it about that no other deliverance is to be for a moment compared with salvation from sin (Ephesians 2:1-4; cf. Galatians 1:4, Judges 1:21).

This is also seen to be the meaning of mercy when the method of God’s mercy in the Gospel is considered, and the aim of it.

(1) Its method.—Christ’s work teaches us that God’s mercy seeks a higher good for men than the relief of temporal distress. We must think of Christ as abiding in the constant sense of the mercy of His Father, and communicating the same to men in word and deed. ‘Be ye therefore merciful (οἰκτίρμονες), as your Father also is merciful’ (Luke 6:36). ‘Love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this’ (John 15:12-13). That is to say, the mercy of God beginning with compassion went on to action, in the Incarnation and Atonement. ‘This is he that came by water and blood’ (1 John 5:6). ‘I lay down my life that I may take it again.… This commandment have I received of my Father’ (John 10:17-18, cf. 1 Peter 1:3).

Following upon the work of Christ, it is said of believers that they have obtained mercy (2 Corinthians 4:1, 1 Timothy 1:13; 1 Timothy 1:16, 1 Peter 2:10); and that they look for the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life (Judges 1:21). And mercy is still continuously needed, asked for, and received by believers (Hebrews 4:16, Philippians 2:27, 2 Timothy 1:16; 2 Timothy 1:18). Also the prayers in 1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2, Galatians 6:16, 2 John 1:3, Judges 1:2, indicate that it becomes us to go in prayer to seek the mercy which it remains always with God to bestow. It is noteworthy that mercy is added to the usual ‘grace’ and ‘peace’ of the salutations just in those places where some more intimate affection and tender sympathy is naturally to be expected (e.g. Galatians 6:16, the Letters to Timothy, and Jude’s Epistle). Whatever there is painful in the experience of believers constitutes for them a new need of the Divine mercy, and is to be explained as a part of God’s purpose of greater good by saving them more and more completely from sin.

(2) Its aim.—The aim of God’s mercy is expressed in Christ’s words, ‘That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 5:45). The parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:23) sets forth the purpose of God negatively, and in 1 John 2:5; 1 John 4:12; 1 John 4:17 the positive side is given. God’s mercy or love to us comes to perfect realization when we have learned to be like Him. Because He loves us He will have us to be merciful, that we may be at our best. In this way also the progress of the Kingdom of God among men is assured, as we see in a concrete instance in 2 Corinthians 4-7 (cf. Acts 20:18-35).

2. Mercy of man to man.—We have seen that it is the aim of the Divine mercy to reproduce itself in the spirits of men. As mercy has two parts, pity and active beneficence, we are commanded to love not in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16). This is Christ’s teaching in Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7; Matthew 23:23, and in the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30) and of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31), as well as in that of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:28). From these we learn that if gratitude to God does not avail to make men merciful to one another, they will be dealt with by penalties (see also James 2:13; James 3:17, 1 John 2:9-11; 1 John 3:15). This right disposition of heart is a product not so much of enlightenment of the mind as of such experiences as touch the springs of affection. The passage in 2 Corinthians 4-9, beginning ‘as we have obtained mercy’ (and, indeed, the whole Epistle), is a treasury of evangelical motives to philanthropic conduct. ‘Our mouth is opened unto you, our heart is enl arged’ (2 Corinthians 6:11). Similarly, in the case of St. Peter, ‘Thou knowest that I love thee.… Feed my sheep’ (John 21:17; cf. Romans 12:1 ‘I beseech you … by the mercies (οἰκτιρμοί) of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice’).

Selflessness, and the constraint that Christ’s love lays upon a believer, are the important features of his behaviour in this matter of mercifulness. ‘Though I be nothing’; ‘I will very gladly spend and be spent for you’ (2 Corinthians 12:12; 2 Corinthians 12:15). ‘I am debtor … as much as in me is, I am ready’ (Romans 1:14-15). ‘The love of Christ constraineth us’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). ‘We ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (1 John 3:16). When we look at Christ’s own life for an example, we do not find in His case the indebtedness of one who has been forgiven, but we do find the readiness of unreserved surrender to His Father’s will. ‘I came not to do mine own will’ (John 6:38). ‘My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me’ (John 7:16). ‘I have not spoken of myself’ (John 12:49). Thus the mercy of God does not work in vacuo, but in the concrete example of Christ and of men possessed by His spirit, and made vehicles of His mercy (Romans 11:31, 1 John 4:12).

In the OT the word חָסֶר ‘mercy’ is used of the duties of piety between kinsmen (Genesis 20:13), or persons who are in covenant with each other (Genesis 21:23). And it might seem in conflict with this that one of the most striking instances in which an appeal for mercy is disallowed in the NT is that of the rich man to his father Abraham (Luke 16:24). Similarly, Christ subordinated the ties of kindred (Luke 14:26) even with Himself (Mark 3:33, Luke 11:28) to the higher bonds of the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless the effect of Christian faith is to strengthen, and not to weaken, all the ties of human affection, raising them into the region of religion. The early motto of Christ’s ministry was, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7); the same thought pervades the later chapters of the Gospel of John (13–17) and his First Epistle, passim, while both in Acts (Acts 20:38; Acts 21:13) and in his Epistles there is evidence of the overflowing, self-forgetting affection of St. Paul for the Christian Churches. The rule of pity and of active helpfulness is the teaching and the practice of Christ and His disciples. Mercy is the note of the Christian temper. See, further, artt. Grace, Kindness.

Literature.—Cremer, Lexicon, s.v. ἔλεος; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Mercy’; Seeley, Ecce Homo, chs. xix. xx.; Dykes, Manifesto of the King, p. 101 ff.; Paget, Studies in the Christian Character, p. 221 ff.; Butler, Serm. v. vi. ix. xi. xii.; Browning, Ring and the Book, x.; C. Watson, First Ep. of John; Dean Stanley Corinthians, vol. ii.

T. Gregory.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mercy'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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