Mercy is a concept integral to an understanding of God's dealings with humankind. In English translations of the Bible, it comes to expression in phrases such as "to be merciful, " "to have mercy on, " or "to show mercy toward." The corresponding term, "merciful, " describes a quality of God and one that God requires of his people. The noun denotes compassion and love, not just feelings or emotions, as expressed in tangible ways.
Several Hebrew and Greek terms lie behind the English term "mercy." The chief Hebrew term is hesed [d,s,j], God's covenant "lovingkindness." In both the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) and the New Testament, the term behind "mercy" is most often eleos [e[leo"] in one form or another, but oiktirmos/oiktiro [oijktirmov"/oijkteivrw] (compassion, pity, to show mercy) and splanchna/splagchnizomai [splagcNIVzomai] (to show mercy, to feel sympathy for) also play roles.
The Old Testament. Mercy: A Part of God's Nature. Although people have the capacity for showing mercy, especially toward those with whom they already have a special relationship ( 1 Kings 20:31 ; Isa 49:15 ; Jer 31:20 ; cf. 1 Macc 2:57), a lack of mercy is more natural to the human condition ( Prov 5:9 ; 12:10 ; Isa 13:18 ; 47:6 ; Jer 6:23 ; 50:42 ; cf. Wisd. of Sol. 12:5). Mercy is, however, a quality intrinsic to the nature of God. It is for this reason that in some situations "merciful" was a sufficient description of God ( Psalm 116:5 ; cf. Tobit 6:17). Sometimes it appears alongside other qualities as one expression of his nature that God's children particularly observe and recount ( Exod 34:6 ; Deut 4:31 ; 2 Chron 30:9 ; Psalm 86:15 ; Dan 9:9 ; Jonah 4:2 ). The experience of God's people is that God's mercy, unlike human mercy, cannot be exhausted ( 2 Sam 24:14 ; Lam 3:22 ). Yet divine mercy is not blind or dumb; although God tolerated Israel's rebellion with mercy for a very long time ( Nehemiah 9:17 Nehemiah 9:19 Nehemiah 9:31 ; Jer 3:12 ), ultimately ungodliness in Israel was met by a withdrawal of God's mercy, leading to judgment ( Lamentations 2:2 Lamentations 2:21 ; Zech 1:12 ). But even in judgment and discipline God's mercy can be seen and hoped for ( 2 Sam 24:14 ; Psalm 57:1 ; Isa 55:7 ; 60:10 ; Jer 31:20 ; Hab 3:2 ; cf. Tobit 6:17), for it is part of the basic disposition of love toward his people, and it directs his actions ultimately in ways that benefit his people.
Mercy as the Foundation of God's Covenant. Mercy and hesed [d,s,j], God's covenant love, are integrally related. So close is the relationship that hesed [d,s,j] sometimes is to be viewed in terms of mercy. In this relationship, mercy then comes to be seen as the quality in God that directs him to forge a relationship with people who absolutely do not deserve to be in relationship with him. Mercy is manifested in God's activity on behalf of his people to free them from slavery; it is neither theory nor principle. As the passages taken up with the establishment of the covenant with Israel show, God's mercy is a driving force in leading him to create a relationship with Israel ( Exod 34:6 ; Deut 4:31 ; 13:17 ; Hosea 2:19 ); its meaning through hesed [d,s,j] extends to that of loyalty based on merciful love, a loyalty that maintains the covenant despite Israel's own resistance ( Psalm 25:6 ; 40:11 ; 69:17 ; Isa 63:7 ; Jer 16:5 ; 42:12 ; Hosea 2:19 ; Joel 2:13 ; Zech 7:9 ). God's mercy is mediated through the covenant, by which he becomes the God of a people promising protection, provision, guidance, and his constant presence ( Psalm 23:6 ). Because God is the initiator, the mercy he gives is gracious, unmerited, undeserved ( Gen 19:16 ; Exod 33:19 ; Jer 42:12 ). Within the relationship, God's mercy is thus closely linked to forgiveness ( Exod 34:9 ; Num 14:19 ; Jer 3:12 ; Dan 9:9 ), a more basic disposition of compassion ( Deut 13:17 ) leading to forgiveness, and to the steadfast love by which God sustains the covenant and repeatedly forgives his people ( Psalm 25:6 ; 40:11 ; 51:1 ; 69:16 ; 103:4 ; 119:77 ; Jer 3:12 ; 16:5 ).
Salvation, membership in the covenant, and the promises of God all derive logically from the constellation of divine qualities that includes mercy. God's ability to provide, protect, and sustain a people finds its channel and direction through his gracious mercy acted out in historical contexts.
Mercy in the New Testament. The pattern of God's dealings with people in the Old Testament, at the core of which is mercy, also provides the shape for understanding his dealings in the New Testament. God desires a relationship with humankind, but must show mercy to them in order for this relationship to be built. Of course, the New Testament expounds the theme of God's mercy in the light of Christ, the supreme expression of love, mercy, and grace.
The Continuance of God's Covenant Mercy. Although the redemptive ministry of Christ comes to be thought of as the clearest expression of God's mercy, the Old Testament theme continues to be sounded as the basis for a people of God. In the "Magnificat" Mary recalls the mercy of God, God's hesed [d,s,j] -love, expressed in his continuing faithfulness to Israel ( Luke 1:50 Luke 1:54 Luke 1:58 Luke 1:72 Luke 1:78 ). Paul links this same divine commitment of mercy to undeserving people in the Old Testament with God's stubborn pursuit of Israel in and through Christ in the New Testament era and its extension to the Gentiles ( Romans 9:15-16 Romans 9:23 ; 11:31-32 ; 15:9 ). This latter thought is taken up in 1 Peter 2:10: "Once you were not a people; but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (NRSV). Applied with special emphasis to the Gentile believers to remind them of their undeserved blessings, the fact is equally true of Gentiles and Jews: people come into relationship with God only because God shows mercy to them.
Similarly, the New Testament writers echo the Old Testament belief that mercy belongs to God ( 2 Cor 1:3 ; James 5:11 ) and that this resource of mercy is inexhaustible ( Eph 2:4 ). For this reason, people can confidently cry out to God for mercy in time of need ( Luke 18:13 ; 2 Timothy 1:16 2 Timothy 1:18 ; cf. Matt 15:22 ; 17:15 ).
God's Mercy Displayed in the Ministry of Christ. The great Acts of mercy shown by God to the people of Israel found intimate expression in the ministry of Christ. The pattern he set, however, was not a new one, for he simply worked out the mercy of God at the human level. This is seen most clearly in his Acts of healing. Cleansed of the legion of demons, the healed man is told to return home and declare the mercy that God has shown to him ( Mark 5:19 ). The man had received from God without even asking. Others who beseeched Jesus to heal them or people with various afflictions knew that what they requested was for God to "be merciful" ( Matt 15:22 ; 17:15 ; Mark 10:47-48 ; [par] Luke 17:13 ). And invariably he was. Mercy was manifested in practical help, not simply in a consoling message that God was sympathetic with their plight.
Mercy as the Foundation of Salvation. Ultimately the mercy of God that Jesus demonstrated in individual salvific Acts becomes for the New Testament writers the illustration of the release from sin and death that God offers to the whole world through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. The counterpart to the theme of the establishment of God's covenant with Israel in the Old Testament is the New Testament theme of God's gracious provision of salvation through the work of Christ. Each redemptive act of Godthe exodus from Egypt and Jesus' crucifixion/resurrectionis interrelated. The one grounds and shapes the other, which receives clarity and development through the concept of salvation in the New Testament. What God did for Israel in rescuing them from slavery in Egypthe "saved" themwas a part of the relationship he made with this people. Now in Christ the new exodussalvation from sin forms the basis for the relationship God desires with humankind. But the fundamental factor in each act of God is mercy: God's compassionate love for his creation that leads him to do for it what it cannot do for itself. Mercy thus forgives and liberates those who have no right to such blessings.
Salvation thus rests on God's mercy as executed in and through the Christ-event. This is perhaps seen most clearly in Paul's discussion with the Roman Christians about the Gentiles' place in God's family in Romans 9:15-18 (cf. 11:30-32 ). The point is made that salvation depends utterly on God's mercy and that the salvation of the Gentiles is but another display of this mercy: "For he [God] says to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion'" ( 9:15 ; quoting Exod 33:19 ). Mercy is such a dominant concept within salvation that the heirs of salvation are called "vessels of mercy" ( 9:23 ) in contrast to those who fail to receive it and are called "vessels of wrath" ( 9:22 ).
This theme is echoed elsewhere in the New Testament. Peter ( 1 Peter 1:3 ) reached back to the Old Testament records of God's establishment of a covenant with Israel and connected them with the new life in Christ to describe the salvation of Christians: "By his great mercy he has given us a new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (NRSV). Titus 3:5 declares: "he saved us not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy" (NRSV). Ephesians 2:4-5 links the salvation of the Gentiles with God's richness of mercy. Throughout the New Testament it is clear that God's mercy is displayed to the world in Christ.
Mercy as the Response of Those to Whom Mercy Has Been Shown. Beyond viewing salvation as God's great act of mercy, the profound effect on the early church that God's mercy had can be seen in several other ways. Paul was conscious that his own rescue from a life as the church's and God's enemy came about because of God's mercy ( 1 Timothy 1:13 1 Timothy 1:16 ). His behavior deserved judgment, but God in his mercy bestowed salvation instead. Paul also regarded the right to participate in ministry as a decision of God grounded on his mercy ( 2 Cor 4:1 ). He saw with great sensitivity that even seemingly mundane events were actually manifestations of God's helping mercy ( Php 2:27 ). It is this kind of imprint on the heart that made mercy a common wish and blessing of one believer to another ( 2 Timothy 1:16 2 Timothy 1:18 ), and in some cases the opening greetings of letters included the wish for mercy ( 1 Tim 1:2 ; 2 Tim 1:2 ; 2 John 3 ; Jude 2 ; cf. Gal 6:16 ). In view of these examples, it is not exaggerating to say that life in Christ gives birth in believers' hearts to a consciousness not only of being recipients of God's mercy in one gift of salvation, but also of being daily recipients of fresh "mercies" of God, emblems of his ownership of us and care for us ( Rom 12:1 ; 2 Cor 1:3 ; all of the greetings cf. Lam 3:22-23 ).
In this awareness of God's past, present, and future ( Jude 21 ) mercy toward us, an element of our response to God takes on a new force in the New Testament. Christians are to be channels of God's mercy in the church and in the world.
The awareness in Judaism and early Christianity of the responsibility to show mercy is evident in the practice of almsgiving (eleemosyne [ejlehmosuvnh]), a term developed from eleos [e[leo"]. This expression of mercy in the form of charitable giving might be driven by wrong motives ( Matt 6:2-4 ), but in Luke's writings especially it is cited as an example of true spirituality. Thus in Luke 11:41 the value of giving alms is placed high above religious rules about purity, which the Pharisees guarded so carefully. In 12:33 mercy expressed in charitable giving is made a characteristic of discipleship. This specific way of showing mercy is praised in the early church ( Acts 9:36 ; 10:2 ) and clearly regarded as an aspect of the normal Christian life (cf. Acts 24:17 ). In this way Christians become living signs of God's perfect mercy introduced in Christ and one day to be fully realized (cf. Acts 3:3 Acts 3:6 ).
In more general terms, to show mercy is a characteristic of life in God's kingdom, a demonstration of kingdom power. The beatitude (an announcement of blessing) in Matthew 5:7 indicates that showing mercy is one of the marks of righteousness, the gift of God associated with the inbreaking of God's kingdom. God has made it possible; therefore his people must do it. In so doing, they mirror the God who has saved them ( Luke 6:36 ; cf. the opposite picture in Matt 18:33 ; James 2:13 ). To illustrate fulfillment of the half of God's law given to direct human relationships, Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan. Thus, showing mercy to our "neighbors" is part of the basic response of God's people to his covenant ( Luke 10:25-37 ; cf. Lev 19:17-18 ; Deut 6:4-5 ). Compassion and merciful action in behalf of those around us are the essence of spiritual living. The absence of mercy is a sign of unbelief and rejection of God ( Romans 1:28 Romans 1:31 ). The Jews were reprimanded for emphasizing cultic Acts and ignoring mercy toward one another ( Hosea 6:6 ). Jesus took up this reprimand to denounce the legalistic practices of the Pharisees ( Matt 9:13 ). True Christian faith produces genuine compassion and fruit in the form of Acts of mercy toward those in need. It was this characteristic of mercy that caused Christ to go among all kinds of people to help. Believers are to respond to the mercy shown them in the same way.
Philip H. Towner
Bibliography. R. Bultmann, TDNT, 2:477-87; 5:159-61; J. D. M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament; H.-H. Esser, NIDNTT 2:593-601; N. Glueck, Hesed in the Bible; R. A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding; E. Kä emann, New Testament Questions of Today; N. H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
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[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Mercy'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".