Compassion [N]

That (human) disposition that fuels Acts of kindness and mercy. Compassion, a form of love, is aroused within us when we are confronted with those who suffer or are vulnerable. Compassion often produces action to alleviate the suffering, but sometimes geographical distances or lack of means prevent people from acting upon their compassionate feelings. Compassion is not a uniquely Christian response to suffering (cf. Exod 2:6 ; Luke 10:33 ), even though Christians have unique reasons for nurturing their compassionate dispositions.

The Hebrew (hamal [l;m'j], rachuwm [Wj;r]) and Greek (splanchnisomai [splagcNIVzomai]) words sometimes translated as "compassion" also bear a broader meaning such as "to show pity, " "to love, " and "to show mercy." Other near synonyms for compassion in English are "to be loved by, " "to show concern for, " "to be tenderhearted, " and "to act kindly."

The Old Testament. God's compassion is freely ( Exod 33:19 ; Rom 9:15 ) and tenderly given, like a mother's ( Isa 49:15 ) or father's ( Ho 11:8 ) compassion for a child. Yahweh boldly declares, "I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" ( Exod 33:19 ). While his compassion can be thwarted by disobedience ( Deut 13:17 ; 30:3 ; 2 Chron 30:9 ), there are times when his disobedient people's only hope is that his compassion overcomes his anger ( Ho 11:8 ). Yahweh's compassion is rooted in his covenant relationship with his people ( 2 Ki 13:23 ). Hope for the future ( Isa 49:13 ; Jer 12:15 ) is also rooted in God's compassion. It is said that compassion follows wrath ( Jer 12:15 ; Lam 3:32 ), is new each morning ( La 3:22-23 ), and overcomes sin ( Psalm 51:1 ; Micah 7:19 ) rather than ignoring it.

Since compassionate Acts flow from compassionate persons, we are not surprised to learn that compassion is constitutive of God's very being ( Exod 34:6 , "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God" ). Echoes of this declaration are found throughout Scripture. God's compassion was essential for the maintenance of the covenant and his people praised him for it continually ( Psalm 78:38 ; 86:15 ; 103:13 ; 145:8 ).

"Compassion" is not frequently used with a human subject. It is found, however, in a mother's attitude toward her son ( 1 Kings 3:26 ), a princess's reaction to an abandoned child ( Exod 2:6 ), and the Ziphites' treatment of Saul ( 1 Sam 23:21 ).

The New Testament. The intertestamental literature and the New Testament continue to speak about God as the compassionate one. God's compassion is demonstrated in his Son's ministry for and among his people ( Matt 9:36 ; Mark 6:34 ). The messianic compassion is extended to the helpless crowds ( Matt 9:36 ), the sickly masses ( Matt 14:14 ), the hungry people ( Mr 8:2 ), and the blind men ( Matt 20:34 ). The waiting father ( Luke 15:20 ) is filled with compassion when he sees his wayward son returning — just as God has compassion on us and accepts us when we repent and return to him.

Believers learn about compassion through example and exhortation. Imitating God and/or Christ has led many to lives of exemplary compassion. The Scriptures also exhort believers to make compassion an integral aspect of their lives ( Zech 7:9 ; Col 3:12 ). Compassion needs to be nurtured and practiced or even this basic love response can grow dull and cold.

David H. Engelhart

See also Love; Mercy

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Compassion'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.



Compassion is the translation of racham, "to love," "pity," "be merciful" (Deuteronomy 13:17; 30:3); of rachamim, "mercies" (1 Kings 8:50); of chamal, "to pity," "spare" (Exodus 2:6; 1 Samuel 23:21); rachum (Psalms 78:38; 86:15; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8), is rendered by the American Standard Revised Version "merciful." We have splagchnizomai, "to have the bowels yearning," in Matthew 9:36; 14:14, etc.; sumpatheo (Hebrews 10:34), "to suffer with (another)"; sumpathes (1 Peter 3:8, the Revised Version (British and American) "compassionate," margin, Greek, "sympathetic"); metriopatheo (Hebrews 5:2, the Revised Version (British and American) "who can bear gently with"); eleeo, "to show mildness," "kindness" (Matthew 18:33; Mark 5:19; Jude 1:22, the Revised Version (British and American) "mercy"); oikteiro, "to have pity" or "mercy" (Romans 9:15 bis).

Both racham and splagchnizomai are examples of the physical origin of spiritual terms, the bowels being regarded as the seat of the warm, tender emotions or feelings. But, while racham applied to the lower viscera as well as the higher, splagchnon denoted chiefly the higher viscera, the heart, lungs, liver.

The Revised Version (British and American) gives "compassion" for "mercy" (Isaiah 9:17; 14:1; 27:11; 49:13; Jeremiah 13:14; 30:18; Daniel 1:9 the King James Version "tender love with"; for "bowels of compassion," 1 John 3:17); for "mercy" (Hebrews 10:28); "full of compassion" for "merciful" (the American Standard Revised Version "merciful" in all cases) (Ex; 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2); "compassions for mercies" (Isaiah 63:15; Philippians 2:1), for "repentings" (Hosea 11:8).

Compassion, literally a feeling with and for others, is a fundamental and distinctive quality of the Biblical conception of God, and to its prominence the world owes more than words can express.

(1) It lay at the foundation of Israel's faith in Yahweh. For it was out of His compassion that He, by a marvelous act of power, delivered them from Egyptian bondage and called them to be His own people. Nothing, therefore, is more prominent in the Old Testament than the ascription of compassion, pity, mercy, etc., to God; the people may be said to have gloried in it. It is summed up in such sayings as that of the great declaration in Exodus 34:6:

"Yahweh-- a God full of compassion (the American Standard Revised Version merciful) and gracious" (compare Psalms 78:38; 86:15; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8; Lamentations 3:22, "His compassions fail not"). And, because this was the character of their God, the prophets declared that compassion was an essential requirement on the part of members of the community (Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8; compare Proverbs 19:17).

(2) In Jesus Christ, in whom God was "manifest in the flesh," compassion was an outstanding feature (Matthew 9:36; 14:14, etc.) and He taught that it ought to be extended, not to friends and neighbors only, but to all without exception, even to enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 10:30-37).

The God of the New Testament, the Father of men, is most clearly revealed as "a God full of compassion." It extends to the whole human race, for which He effected not merely a temporal, but a spiritual and eternal, deliverance, giving up His own Son to the death of the cross in order to save us from the worst bondage of sin, with its consequences; seeking thereby to gain a new, wider people for Himself, still more devoted, more filled with and expressive of His own Spirit. Therefore all who know the God and Father of Christ, and who call themselves His children, must necessarily cultivate compassion and show mercy, "even as he is merciful." Hence, the many apostolic injunctions to that effect (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:12; James 1:27; 1 John 3:17, etc.). Christianity may be said to be distinctively the religion of Compassion.

W. L. Walker

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'COMPASSION'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.