Mercy in Scripture

As Hans Urs von Balthasar has pointed out, “truth is symphonic“. Scripture generally reveals in precisely this symphonic way. It does not give us dictionary definitions of terms like “mercy” and then commit us to a static “this term means this and this only” understanding. Rather, it walks us around an aspect of revelation and shows it to us under several images. It says, “Do you want to know what the Kingdom of Heaven is like? Why, it’s like a mustard seed, a net, an unjust judge, a woman who lost a coin, a father who lost a son, and a field full of wheat and weeds.”

We see this symphonic pedagogy at work in Scripture’s revelation of mercy. Scripture tells us endlessly that God is merciful and full of mercy–and it does it in many different ways. The Old Testament uses two expressions in particular, each having a different semantic tilt, which denote “mercy”. First there is hesed, indicating, as Dives in Misericordia says, “a profound attitude of ‘goodness.'”

Hesed between persons means vastly more than well-wishing. It means an interior commitment, a “stick-to-you-through-thick-and-thinness” that maintains one’s own integrity while refusing to abandon the other, even if the other violates the relationship. Because hesed also means “grace” or “love,” (not “being a doormat”) precisely on the basis of this fidelity it does not say “My mother, drunk or sober!” but neither does it say, “I’m not the weaker partner! I have my rights!” It doesn’t approach relationship on the basis of dominance or civil rights, but on the basis of rootedness in the love of God and therefore of power to love even when love is unrequited. It loves neighbor as it loves self. It is willing to sacrifice self for love of neighbor (as Jesus did) but it is not willing to sacrifice self merely in order to avoid confronting sin (as, for example, a self-destructive parent does who supports her child’s coke habit because she “loves him and doesn’t want him to suffer”).

Not surprisingly, Old Testament associations of hesed with God always occur in relation with the covenant that God established with Israel. Put simply, God’s hesed is not predicated on whether we deserve it, but on his desire to bestow it. As Portia says, “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath.” It most emphatically does not well up from the place beneath (particularly in the Old Covenant) but is unconditional on our merit. God has mercy on Israel, not because Israel deserves mercy but because he is merciful. That said, God does not leave Israel to frolic with Golden Calves. His mercy is expressed precisely in the fact that he refuses to leave Israel alone. He gives the nation commandments to which he attaches real punishments when broken. But the goal of punishment is always restoration of the broken relationship. Even his “abandonments” of Israel have in view the deeper reality of God’s settled determination to hold fast to the covenant, to be, for Israel what Pope John Paul II calls in Dives in Misericordia “love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.” In a word, God is faithful to himself, and therefore faithful to Israel: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ezekiel 36:22).

The second Old Testament word used to define mercy is rahamim. If hesed is masculine in its imagery–full of appeals to the honor of a God who swears, as a heroic warrior in the Iliad might, by his own honor, to be faithful and merciful no matter how little he gets from us in return–then rahamim shows a decidedly maternal and feminine aspect of God’s mercy. Indeed, its very root is rehem, which means “mother’s womb” and it denotes the heartbreaking (and often heartbroken) love of a mother for children. It is a love that will endure all and go on loving a child should all the world turn its back on him and should he turn his back on his mother. Here, supremely is portrayed the completely gratuitous and unmerited mercy in the strongest feminine imagery of the Old Testament: imagery that conveys not merely an abstract idea but the most visceral feelings of tenderness, patience and understanding. It is of this sort of mercy we read in Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15). This indomitable and mysteriously powerful trait of motherhood breathes through various Old Testament images: salvation from dangers and enemies; forgiveness of sins, and most especially in God’s fixed intention to see Israel through to its ultimate Hope in the Day of the Lord, despite human infidelity: “I will heal their faithlessness, I will love them freely” (Hos. 14:5).

To these basic concepts numerous other examples and images of mercy are added in both the Old and New Testament. In Genesis18:17-32, Omnipotence and Omniscience tells Abraham what it is going to do to Sodom and Abraham, instead of bowing to the inevitable as to the inevitable onslaught of a hurricane, decides to dicker with God, establishing a venerable Jewish form of pedagogy that suffuses the Old Testament. Like Moses, David, the prophets, and the apostles who argued with Jesus, he tries to change God’s mind. He does not really succeed, for God’s mind is always mercy. Rather, he struggles through to the deeper revelation that God desires mercy and life for the righteous, and not mere mass retribution meted out indiscriminately on account of the wicked.

God’s mercy is not only revealed, it is kneaded into the character of Old Testament figures, again in very paradoxical ways. After Israel commits the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, God threatens to exterminate Israel on the spot (Exodus 32). Again, it would appear to be pointless to argue with the God of Universe when he speaks in such definite terms. Yet Moses does–precisely as God intended he should–and is made by God into an icon of intercessory mercy by his offer to take the punishment for Israel upon himself. It is a gesture done in anticipation of the Only One who could really bear such a burden. And it is one of the great images of mercy in the Old Testament.

David too, demonstrates some aspects of mercy (and shows some of the ways in which Old Testament revelation still awaited completion by the New Testament). We see, for example, that David mercifully awards with equal largesse soldiers who failed to carry as much of the burden of battle as others (1 Samuel 30:21-25). Like the man in Jesus’ parable, David makes free with his own money, paying his workers the wage they agreed to and giving liberally to those whom he chooses (Matthew 20:1-16). Even more, however, during David’s reign, we find him extending mercy, not only to friends and allies, but even to various people standing opposed to him, some quite cruelly and in his darkest hour. And so, for instance, he grants mercy to Joab for his murder of David’s foes against his orders. Further, he forgives Shimei for heaping scorn on his head when he was exiled from Jerusalem during the attempted coup by his son, Absalom. However, David’s mercy is decidedly conditional and temporary. Once he is dead, he tells Solomon, see to it that Joab is rubbed out and find a way to kill Shimei (1 Kings 2:5-9). David understands more of mercy than most of his contemporaries. But he is still all too fallen.

This last point is important. For Old Testament revelation of mercy is incomplete and is only fully understood in light of the New Covenant in which God, who is “rich in mercy” became incarnate and died for us, pleading for mercy toward the very men who condemned him to death. Moses’ merciful self-offering prefigures the self-offering of the Incarnate God. But only the Incarnate God can really make the self-offering for our sins because only he is both God and man. When he does, mercy is fully revealed and eloquently summed up by his apostle, Paul:

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man-though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

This is the ultimate act of mercy from him who is Mercy Incarnate. It is the object toward which all biblical revelation of mercy points and the source from which all biblical revelation of mercy springs. Jesus is the mercy of God.


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