By Mark Mayberry
“Mercy among the virtues is like the moon among the stars, – not so sparkling and vivid as many, but dispensing a calm radiance that hallows the whole. It is the bow that rests upon the bosom of the cloud when the storm is past. It is the light that hovers above the judgment seat.”(1)
Mercy is an important biblical concept. The word appears hundreds of times in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, the term “mercy” is often found in the apostolic greetings. For example, Paul began his letter to Timothy by saying, “Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:2). Grace speaks of God’s “unmerited favor” toward sinners. Peace belongs to those who enjoy fellowship with God. But what is mercy?
Webster defines “mercy” as ” 1. A refraining from harming or punishing offenders, enemies, persons in one’s power, etc.; kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness; forbearance and compassion; 2. imprisonment rather than the death penalty imposed on those found guilty of capital crimes; 3. a disposition to forgive, pity, or be kind; 4. the power to forgive or to be kind; clemency (to throw oneself on the ‘mercy’ of the court); 5. kind or compassionate treatment; relief of suffering; 6. a fortunate thing; thing to be grateful for; blessing.”(2)
Mercy involves God’s attitude toward man. It is an expression of his love for humanity. It includes pity, compassion, gentleness and forbearance. No one term can adequately convey the idea of mercy, for all these thoughts are intertwined.
“The tracing of the concept of mercy in the English Bible is complicated by the fact that ‘mercy,’ ‘merciful,’ and ‘have mercy upon’ are translations of several different Hebrew and Greek roots, which are also variously rendered in other occurrences by other synonyms, such as ‘kindness,’ ‘grace’ ‘favor’ and (cognate verbs). To picture this concept we would require a group of overlapping linguistic circles.”(3)
The Old Testament is rich in words that reflect the idea of mercy. The most common Hebrew word is hesed. It appears over 250 times in the Old Testament. In the KJV, it is usually translated “mercy,” but at times it is also rendered “kindness,” “loving kindness,” and “goodness.” It denotes God’s steadfast love, tenderly demonstrated by his covenant faithfulness with his chosen people. It carries the idea of mutual rights and mutual responsibilities.
Several Greek words are translated mercy in the New Testament. The most common are eleos, oiktirmos, and their related verbs. W. E. Vine defines the noun eleos as “the outward manifestation of pity; it assumes need on the part of him who receives it, and resources adequate to meet the need on the part of him who shows it.” He says the verb eleeo generally means “to feel sympathy with the misery of another.” He defines the noun oiktirmos as “pity, compassion for the ills of others. ” He says the verb oikteiro, means “to have pity on.”(4)
In the New Testament, mercy is often combined with grace. These are closely kin but distinct terms. As Trench points out, grace is related to sin while mercy is related to the misery that sin brings. “The charis (grace) of God, the gift of his free grace that is displayed in the forgiveness of sins, is extended to men as they are guilty, his eleos (mercy) as they are miserable.”(5)Divine grace removes our guilt, while divine mercy removes our misery.
Mercy is an expression of God’s love toward those in need (2 Cor. 1:3). Although man is unworthy and undeserving, yet God shows forbearance and mercy. He helps the helpless; he succors the afflicted; he lifts up the distressed. To sinners who are miserable, wretched and guilty, he offers solace and pardon.
An Essential Characteristic of God
Mercy is an essential characteristic of God (Psa. 62:12). Jehovah is a God of marvelous mercy and infinite love. The mercy of the Lord is great (Psa. t45:8) and plenteous (Psa. 86:5,15; 103:8). The earth is full of God’s mercy (Psa. 119:64). It reaches unto the heavens (Psa. 36:5; 57:10; 103:11; 108:4). It endureth forever (Psa. 89:2; 100:5; 103:17; 106:1; 107:1; lt8:1-4, 29; 136:lff; 138:8).
Mercy is associated with God’s forgiveness (Mic. 7:18-20; 1 Tim. 1:13-16), his forbearance (Psa. 145:8; Rom. 2:4), his covenant (2 Kgs. 8:23; Psa. 89:28), his judgment and justice (Psa. 89:14; 101:1), his goodness (Psa. 109:21) and faithfulness (Psa. 89:24), and also with his truth (Psa. 57:3; 85:10; 98:3; 108:4; Prov. 3:3; 14:22; etc.).
The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing mercy (Psa. 147:11). His mercy supports us in times of distress (Psa. 4:1), trouble (Psa. 9:13; 59:16), and weakness (Psa. 6:2). When desolate and afflicted (Psa. 25:16), when consumed with grief and trouble (Psa. 31:9), we should appeal to God for mercy and help (Psa. 30:10). When forced to endure contempt and ridicule, God’s mercy sustains and protects us (Psa. 123:3-4; 143:12). It imparts strength in our time of weakness (Psa. 86:16). It provides support when our foot slips (Psa. 94:18). For all of this, let us rejoice and be joyful (Psa. 31:7; 90:14).
God’s mercy is the basis of his dealings with mankind (Psa. 119:124). It finds expression through his willingness to hear and answer prayer (Psa. 27:7). It leads to divine forgiveness and pardon (Psa. 51:1-2). It delivers us from certain destruction (Psa. 86:13). It is the foundation of our hope of salvation (Psa. 85:7; 109:26; 130:7). Therefore, let us trust in God’s infinite mercy (Psa. 13:5; 23:6; 52:8).
God’s mercy finds its consummate expression through Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 2:1-7; Tit. 3:3-7; 1 Pet. 1:3). He became a merciful and faithful high priest to make atonement for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:17). As a result, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:15-16).
An Essential Requirement of Man
We have already seen that mercy is an essential attribute of God. Now we shall see that mercy is an essential requirement of man (Mic. 6:8). God has been merciful unto mankind, and as a result, he expects us to show mercy one to another (Lk. 6:36). We must be compassionate, tenderhearted, and forgiving (Eph. 4:31-32; Col. 3:12-13). Alexander Pope, once said, “Teach me to feel another’s woe, To hide the fault I see; That mercy I to others show, That mercy show to me.”(6)
Furthermore, the Bible commands that those who show mercy must do it with a spirit of cheerfulness (Rom. 12:8). When visiting those who are sick and shut-in, let us be radiant and cheerful. When attempting to restore an erring brother, let us be encouraging and hopeful. When forgiving another person of some wrong, let us be gracious and kind.
Remember that it is possible to “forgive” someone in such a way that makes our “forgiveness” an insult. It is possible to “forgive” while demonstrating an attitude of criticism and contempt. When called upon to show mercy and forgiveness, let us never forget that we also are sinners. As George Whitefield watched a criminal walking to the gallows, he said, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” There is a way of forgiving that pushes a man further down into the gutter; and there is a way of forgiving that lifts him up out of the mire. True mercy and forgiveness are based, not on a spirit of arrogant superiority, but on loving humility.(7)
Human mercy is beautifully illustrated through the example of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Through generous acts of compassion and kindness, he proved himself to be the neighbor of the man who fell among robbers. We must go and do likewise! Who is my neighbor? Anyone who needs help, and whom I have the power and opportunity to help, regardless of his rank, race or religion.
A merciful man imitates God and disappoints Satan; a merciless man imitates Satan and disappoints God. How wrong it is for us to trust in God’s mercy but show none ourselves. Divine mercy is held in store for those who are merciful (Matt. 5:7). As Edmund Spenser once said, “Who will not mercy unto others show, how can he mercy ever hope to have?”(8) How can we hope for mercy if we render none? Those who are unmerciful render themselves incapable of receiving mercy.
Those who refuse to forgive the trespasses of others will find their own sins unforgiven (Matt. 6:15). In the parable of the unmerciful servant, the king compassionately forgave the enormous debt owed by one of his servants. Yet, this self-same man dealt harshly with a fellowservant who owed him only a trifling amount. The ruthless servant forgot that mercy requires mercy, and as a result, he was severely punished (Matt. 18:23-35). This same lesson can be seen in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The tormented rich man cried out to Abraham for mercy, yet received none because he had not been merciful toward poor Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-25). Those who refuse to show mercy in the here and now will face the cold justice of God in eternity (Jas. 2:13).
The Jewish religious leaders of the first century also failed to grasp the fundamental requirement of mercy (Matt. 9:1013). They criticized Jesus for eating with publicans and sinners. Yet, Jesus’ defense was simple: he went where the need was the greatest. A doctor who visits only with patients in good health is a very poor doctor. His place is in the house of those who are ill; it is his glory to minister to the sick; it is his obligation to go to those who need him. Thus did Jesus.
Our Lord condemned the perverted legalism of the Scribes and Pharisees, and instructed them to study afresh the true nature of religion. They were more concerned with maintaining their own ceremonial holiness than with helping others in need. Like a doctor who refuses to visit the sick lest he become infected with some illness, they shrank away in disgust from sinners and refused to have anything to do with them. Furthermore, these self-righteous Jews were more interested in condemnation than in sympathy and forgiveness. They would rather leave a man lying in the gutter than reach down and lift him up. They needed to learn that it is not enough to go through the motions of outward orthodoxy. A refusal to show mercy to those in need causes our worship to be vain.
Jesus also criticized their shortsightedness. They scrupulously tithed garden herbs, while ignoring the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy and faith (Matt. 23:23-24). In commenting on this verse, J. W. McGarvey said, “‘Judgment’ means here right judgment of our fellow-men; ‘mercy,’ forbearance toward the guilty and compassion toward the suffering. ‘Faith’ is both the belief of the truth and habitual manifestation of that belief in the life.”(9) The Pharisees failed to grasp the real significance of God’s word. They kept the minutiae of the law, but forgot the things that really matter. They had confused religious formality with real devotion.
In closing, let us praise God for his boundless mercy. In the words of John Fletcher, “The greatest attribute of heaven is mercy; And ’tis the crown of justice, and the glory, Where it may kill with right, to save with pity.”(10) In Jehovah God, the qualities of justice and mercy are perfectly blended together. Like the Psalmist of old, let us sing aloud of God’s mercy and glorify his name (Psa. 59:16; 115:1).
How can we benefit from God’s mercy? From a divine standpoint, mercy precedes grace (Jn. 3:16; Lk. 1:78-79; Eph. 2:4). Yet, from a human standpoint, grace precedes mercy. “The same people are the subjects of both, since they are both guilty and miserable, yet the righteousness of God demands that the guilt should be absolved before the misery can be assuaged.”(11) God must pardon before he can heal. God must forgive before he can remove the burden of guilt. We must respond in obedience to God’s grace if we are to experience his mercy! Thus when these words appear together in the New Testament, grace always precedes mercy (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4; 2 Jn. 1:3). Have you responded in faith to the grace of God? The myriad benefits of mercy cannot be yours until you render obedience to the gospel of Christ!
Finally, let us be mindful of the demands of mercy. To experience God’s mercy, we must keep his word (Psa. 25:10). We must confess and forsake sin (Psa. 51:1; Prov. 28:13). We must call on him (Psa. 86:5). We must fear him (Psa. 103:17). We must be penitent and contrite because of our sins (Lk. 18:13). We must offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). Finally, we must walk according to God’s rule (Gal. 6:16).
1. Edwin Hubbell Chapin; as quoted by Frank S. Mead, ed., The Encyclopedia of Religious Quotations (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1965), p. 301.
2. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College ed., s.v. “Mercy.”
3. The New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Mercy.”
4. W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, s.v. “Merciful, Mercy.”
5. Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, ed. Robert G. Hoerber (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), p. 183).
6. Alexander Pope, Universal Prayer; quoted by Frank S. Mead, p. 302.
7. Adapted from William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), p. 176.
8. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen , VI, I, st. 42; quoted in Barlett’s Familiar Quotations, 15th Edition (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1980), p. 174:3.
9. J.W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (1875; Reprinted ed., Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Co., n.d.), p. 199.
10. John Fletcher: Lover’s Progress, Act III, Sec. 3; quoted by Frank S. Mead, p. 301