Dr. Manuel Rebeiro OCD February 14th, 2018

Among the various attributes ascribed to God in the Old Testament, the first and foremost place seems to have been taken up by the idea that God is “holy”. While comparing their God with that of their neighbours, the Israelites were very proud of their God because of his holiness and glory. “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you; majestic in holiness, awesome in glory?” (Ex 15:11; 1Sam 2:2). The thrice repeated expression of the word “holy” by the heavenly beings demonstrates that God is the most holy one and he is holy in his very nature and character (Is 6:3; Rev 4:8). Indeed, it is the very essence of God’s being. It is the same holy God who invites as well as commands his people to participate in his holiness and to become holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44; 19:2). Next to holiness, God is thought to be merciful, kind and compassionate. This is something very characteristic of the God of the Old Testament. A number of terms have been used in the Old Testament to speak about this particular attribute of God, such as cheçed (hesed),  chânan, râcham (raw-kham’), racham (rakh’-am), rachuwm, channûwn, kappôreth and so on.

 

Etymological and Statistical Enquiry:

            The Hebrew word cheçed (hesed, means “mercy,” “kindness,” “goodness,” “faithfulness;” it comes from châced which is a primitive root meaning “to be kind”) is found around 248 times and is translated into English differently by different versions.[1] Thus for example, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) has mostly employed the word “steadfast love” (around 172 times) as its translation.[2]  Besides, it uses also many other terms, such as, kindness (around 15 times), loyalty (22 times), mercy and so on.  While the King James Version (KJV) has generally translated it into “mercy” (around 149 times) and also into “kindness” (40 times), “loving kindness” (30 times),  goodness (12 times) and so on.[3] The term chânan (is a primitive root meaning “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior,” “to be merciful,” “to have mercy,” “to be gracious,” “to show favour or pity”) occurs around 78 times and has been translated as “gracious” (32 times), “mercy” (4 times), “kind” (4 times) etc by the NRSV. KJV has employed “mercy” (16 times), “merciful” (12 times), “gracious” (13 times), “supplication” (10 times), “favour” (7 times) and so on as its translation.

 

            “Râcham” (raw-kham’) is another Hebrew term (a primitive root means “to fondle,” “to love,” “to compassionate,” “have compassion,” “have mercy”) found to be used about 47 times and has been translated as “mercy” (15 times), “compassion” (11 times), “pity” (4 times) etc by the NRSV and “mercy” (32 times), “compassion” (8 times), “pity” (3 times) and so on by the KJV. Likewise the word racham (rakh’-am, meaning “compassion,” “bowels,” “tender love,” “womb” and “mercy” and it originates from “râcham”) occurs about 44 times and has been translated as “mercy” (22 times), “compassion” (7 times), “pity” (4 times) and so on in NRSV. Whereas the KJV employs it in terms of “mercy” (30 times), “compassion” (4 times) “womb” (4 times) and so on.

            The word channûwn (means “gracious” and it derives from chânan) occurs only 13 times and both the NRSV and KJV have rendered it with the same meaning except once into “compassionate” (Ex 22:27) by NRSV.  The next word rachûwm (meaning “compassionate,”  “full of compassion,” “merciful;” it derives from râcham) is found also 13 times and is rendered into “merciful” (12 times by NRSV, 8 times by KJV) and “compassionate” (once by NRSV) and “compassion” (5 times by KJV). The term kappôreth (originates from kâphar, a primitive root means “to cover,” “to cleanse,” “to forgive,” “to be merciful” etc.) occurs about 27 times and it means the “lid or covering of the ark of the covenant” and is generally translated both by NRSV and KJV as “mercy seat.”

 

            From the number of words and their numerous occurrences in different senses and contexts reveal the importance the authors of the Old Testament have given to these terms and what these terms signify. An examination of the use of these words in their particular contexts can yield a rather reliable vision of what they signify. In fact, the authors of the Old Testament try to reveal to us the very nature, quality and character of God as merciful and compassionate. And that is, indeed, the very identity of God. Pope Francis, in this sense, can be justified in telling that “The Name of God is Mercy.”[4] In his conversation with Andrea Tornielli, the Pope opines, “… we can say that mercy is God’s identity card. God of mercy, merciful God. For me, this really is the Lord’s identity.”[5] Pope St. John Paul II considers it as “the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer.”[6]

 

A merciful and gracious God:

            The Old Testament writers reveal the very nature and essence of God as merciful and gracious. This truth is presented in such a way as if God himself reveals his own identity and nature.  Thus while passing before Moses the Lord proclaims, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,..” (Ex 34:6-7).[7]  Mercy is said to be an essential quality of God. “Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them” (Dt 4:31).

            The mercy and graciousness of God is constantly reiterated throughout the Old Testament so much so that to a certain extent God is being identified with his mercy and graciousness.  “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them” (Neh 9:17.31; 2Chr 30:9;). Some of the Psalms remind us of this very nature of God.  “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8; 86:15; 145:8). In times of need (Ps 27:7; 30:10; 86:3), loneliness and affliction (Ps 25:16), distress and grief (Ps 4:1; 31:9), troubles and suffering caused by others (Ps 9:13; 41:10; 56:1; 57:1), fear and weariness (Ps 6:2; 86:16), and in sin and sinful situations (Ps 41:4; 26:11) the cry of the Psalmist is “O Lord, be gracious to me.” In his cry for mercy the Psalmist does not forget to remind God of his promise and faithfulness (Ps 51:1; 119:58. 132). This is also a recurring theme in the experience and proclamation of the prophets (Joel 2:13; Jon 4: 2). By the mouth of the prophets God himself tells the people that he is a merciful God.  “Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: Return, faithless Israel, says the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord; I will not be angry forever” (Jer 3:12). Through prophet Isaiah God invites his people to come to him, to listen to him so that they may have his steadfast love and live (Is 55:3).

They belong to God: Prophet Daniel tells that mercy and forgiveness belong to God (Dan 9:9). The Psalmist too announces that the steadfast love belongs to God (Ps 62:12) and that it goes before him (Ps 89:14). It is, indeed, his prerogative. He knows what is to be done with it and he decides to whom it should be given. Hence no one needs to teach him.  “..I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex 33:19).

They are from of old and ever new: While reminding God of his mercy and steadfast love the Psalmist acknowledges that they are from of old. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old” (Ps 25:6). They are not only from of old but they are ever new as well. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22-23). “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Ps 103:17).

They are very precious: God’s steadfast love is very precious (Ps 36:7) and is better than life (Ps 63:3). It should be always before our eyes (Ps 26:3) and should not conceal it but should be proclaimed to others (Ps 40:10) both in the morning and at night (Ps 92:2). We also need to ponder it in the temple of God (Ps 48:9). We need to constantly call on God to show his steadfast love in order that we may experience his salvation (Ps 6:4; 31:16; 44:26; 119:41.76). While we pray to God for his mercy we can also pray to him for others as well so that he may have mercy on them and show his steadfast love towards them (Gen 24:12).

 

They are great and abundant: The biblical authors never forget to remind us that God’s mercy and compassion are very great and abundant and hence any one can have access to it by calling on God. In his great distress David acknowledges that God’s mercy is very great. “Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands” (2 Sam 27:14; 1Chr 21:13). It is his great and abundant mercy that prompts God to accompany his people on their journey (Neh 9:19) and reach to their rescue when they cry out to him (Neh 9:27). The Psalms often contain this plea for God’s help by recalling his great and abundant mercy, compassion and steadfast love (Ps 51:1; 69:16; 86:13; 103:11; 117:2; 119:156). God also reminds us through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Is 54:7).

In blessing Israel, God has manifested his abundance of mercy (Is 63:7; Dan 9:18). Indeed, it is true that “Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love…” (Lam 3:32). The Psalmist declares that God’s steadfast love is “as high as the heavens” and is “established forever” and his faithfulness extends to the clouds or “as firm as the heavens” (Ps 36:5; 57:10; 89:2; 108:4). The Psalmist is convinced of the fact that his entrance into the house or the temple of God (Ps 5:7) as well as his dwelling in it (Ps 23:6) is made possible only through the abundance of God’s steadfast love.  It is in recalling God’s steadfast love that prayer requests are made: “But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me” (Ps 69:13). Likewise, King Solomon too prays to God invoking God’s great and steadfast love: “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today” (1Kgs 3:6). Since God is rich in mercy, he has demonstrated his great love and mercy in and through the person of Christ Jesus (Eph 2:4-7).

God takes delight in them:  God takes delight in acting “with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness” (Jer 9:24). Prophet Micah announces that God “delights in showing clemency.” “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7: 18-19).

They reveal God’s faithfulness: They reveal God’s faithfulness (Jer 31: 3) God is faithful in keeping his “steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:7). He is ever faithful in keeping his covenant and in showing his steadfast love (Neh 9:32). By his very nature God is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Num 14:18).

They reveal God’s forgiveness and salvation: In time of distress and in need of forgiveness people have no other option than to cry to God for his mercy and kindness. Even in pleading for forgiveness the reference is made to the greatness of his steadfast love (Num 14:18-19; Ps 25:7; 51:1). Thus mercy is often associated with forgiveness (Ex 34:7) and forbearance as the Psalmist expresses: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 145:8). Pope Francis is right in observing: “When faced with the gravity of sin, God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive.”[8]  We should never despise the riches of God’s kindness because it is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4). He assures us that he will not only forgive all our iniquities but will remember them no more (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12; Rom 11:27).

The Psalmist knows for sure that it is in his mercy and love that God keeps us safe (Ps 40:11; Ex 15:13) and grants us salvation (Ps 85:7). “Everything is revealed in mercy; everything is resolved in the merciful love of the Father.”[9] “Mercy is this concrete action of love that, by forgiving, transforms and changes our lives. In this way, the divine mystery of mercy is made manifest.”[10] When God wanted to destroy Sodom he led the family of Lot out of the city thus showing his mercy (Gen 19:15-19) and great kindness in saving their lives. While being in the jail God showed his steadfast love to Joseph helping him to find favour in the sight of the chief jailer (Gen 39:21). And he shows mercy to all those who call on him in any need (Ps 119:88. 149). What is manifested ultimately in our salvation is nothing but God’s mercy and kindness. God “saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy…” (Tit 3:5).

He gives them to whomsoever he wills: Since God is merciful and kind in his name and nature, he is totally free to grant them to anyone he chooses. No one can demand them from him or force him to show them. He gives them to whomever he wills. This is what he reveals to Moses: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex 33:19). Hence St. Paul observes that “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16). However, since the Lord is good to all “his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). This makes evident the depth of his generosity.

He gives them to all who are faithful and obedient: God shows his steadfast love, mercy and kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love and keep his commandments (Ex 20:6; Dt 5:10; 7:9; Neh 1:5; Ps 25:10; 119:159; Dan 9:41; Jer 32:18) and to those who walk before him with all their heart (2Chr 6:14). Definitely, God will maintain his covenant loyalty to all those who keep his ordinances and diligently observe them (Num 7:12). Even if people did not regard his commandments and refused to obey, God will still forgive them because he is “a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, …” (Neh 9:17). The prophet Isaiah lays bare the heart of God in his utterance: “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer… For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you” (Is 54:8-10).

That is the reason why the prophets were persistently persuading the people to return to the Lord. “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-13; Is 44:22; Jer 3:12.14.22; 4:1; 24:7; Hos 6:1; 12:6; 14:1.2; Amos 4:6-11; Zech 1:3-4). Prophet Isaiah’s words make it further clear: “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Is 55:7). Prophet Jonah was deeply conscious of this forgiving character of God. “He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jon 4:2).

He gives them to the anointed: God shows his steadfast love also to his anointed, to the kings and more especially to the descendants of David (2Sam 22:51; Ps 18:50). This is the fact which Solomon reminds God in his prayer: “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today” (1Kg 3:6; 2Chr 1:8). This manifests not only his mercy but also his faithfulness that makes him different from all other gods is clear from Solomon’s words: “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,..” (1Kg 8:23).

What we need to do?

We can remember: It is, indeed, fitting for human beings to remember constantly God’s steadfast love, faithfulness and mercy. Definitely, in times of troubles and distresses we should remind ourselves of them (Ps 106:7). While at the same time, we also need to ask God to remember them so that he may act on our behalf showing us “compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Ps 106:45). The Prophet Isaiah’s decision to recount God’s mercy and love is also an impetus for us to do the same.  “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Is 63:7). It is in his mercy and love that God has created us and maintains us. And hence we should constantly remember what God has done in our lives.

We can trust: As human beings what we need to do is to trust in God’s steadfast love (Ps 13:5; 21:7; 32:10; 52:8). God will take control of the lives of all those who have put their trust in him (Ps 143:8).  He is indeed the savior of all who take refuge in him (Ps 17:7). And hence learning to trust him will surely will bring us more of his mercy.

We can hope: We also need to hope in his steadfast love (Ps 130:7). And if we hope in it God will surely have his eyes on us (Ps 33:18.22) and will take pleasure in us (Ps 147:11).

We can rejoice: We can also exult and rejoice in it because God takes care of us by protecting us from all our adversities (Ps 31:7). It is his mercy that has preserved our lives keeping us away from all dangers, worries, anxieties and troubles. And so let us rejoice in the fact that our God is a merciful God.

We can sing and proclaim: We can also sing aloud of his steadfast love (Ps 59:16-17; 101:1) and proclaim it to all generations (Ps 89:1). It is in his steadfast love that God encounters us (Ps 59:10). Therefore, as human beings we should continue to sing and proclaim his mercy. This will also persuade him to pour forth his mercy in abundance. St. Paul points out that it is the outpouring of God’s mercy that makes the Gentiles also to glorify God. “…and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name” (Rom 15:9).

We can praise and thank: When one recalls the mercy and kindness of God, the heart is filled with joy and opens up into praise and thanks. Thus the servant of Abraham remembering God’s steadfast love and faithfulness towards his master blesses God (Gen 24:47). The Psalmist also blesses God while remembering God’s protection: “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege” (Ps 31:21). “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever” is a constantly recurring call in the Old Testament to praise and thank God (1Chr 16:34; 2Chr 7:3; Ezra 3:11; Ps 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1-4.29; Jer 31:11). Psalm 136 is a hymn of gratitude to God who made the heavens and the earth and worked such wonders for his people thus manifesting his great and steadfast love. Some people are specially chosen for this purpose of rendering thanks to God (1Chr 16:41; 2Chr 7:6) and it was assigned as a duty to the trumpeters and singers (2Chr 5:13; 20:21). Ezra too recalls God’s blessings and praises him for having extended his steadfast love to him (Ezra 7:28; 9:9). The Psalmist also praises God because he has not removed his steadfast love form him (Ps 66:20; 117:2). We can’t resist giving thanks to God’s name for such is his steadfast love and faithfulness (Ps 138:2).

We can express and share: If our God is merciful, kind, compassionate and gracious and has been extremely generous in granting them to us, we too are requested to be so in our relationship with God and our fellow beings. Ordinarily people feel to repay those who have shown kindness and mercy to them or to their family (Jos 2:12; 20:14-15). We do have such examples in the lives of the kings, such as, Saul (1Sam 15:6) and David (2Sam 2:5-6; 9:1.3.7; 10:2; 1Kgs 2:7; 1Chr 19:2). But there were also kings like Joash who did not show any compassion or kindness to those who have shown it to them (2Chr 24:22). Since God has granted us his mercy, we are also bound to show mercy to others. As the pope says, “we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us.”[11] God too desires not sacrifice but steadfast love (Hos 6:6). The prophets constantly go on reminding the people of their duty to show mercy, kindness, justice and compassion to all (Hos 10:12; 12:6; Mic 6:8). The prophet Zechariah puts it very clearly: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another;…” (Zech 7:9). “The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us. He feels responsible; that is, he desires our wellbeing and he wants to see us happy, full of joy, and peaceful. This is the path which the merciful love of Christians must also travel. As the Father loves, so do his children. Just as he is merciful, so we are called to be merciful to each other.”[12] It is imperative that if God has to show his kindness towards us then we should also continue in his kindness (Rom 11:22).

Conclusion

For human beings, God remains a mystery, yet the biblical authors have rightly pictured God as full of mercy and compassion. Pope Francis is of the opinion that “Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.”[13] (n.2). He thinks that “the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as of that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child.”[14]

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Published in Prabodhana  (Mysore) 10 (2017) 18-30.

[1] This tabulation is based on The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible by James Strong (Nahville, 1990) that excludes the Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical Books.
[2] New Revised Standard Version, New York & Oxford, 1989.
[3] This version is of 1769 with codes.
[4] Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli, London, 2016.
[5] Ibid., p.9.
[6] Saint John Paul II, Encyclical Letter: Dives in Misericordia, Vatican City, 1980, n.13.
[7] Biblical passages are taken from New Revised Standard Version, New York & Oxford, 1989.
[8] Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Vatican City, 2015, n.3.
[9] Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter: Misericordia et Misera, Vatican City, 2016, n.1.
[10] Ibid., n.2.
[11] Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, nos.9.14.
[12] Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n.9.
[13] Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n.2.
[14] Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n.6.