An expression of kind consideration or pity that brings relief to those who are disadvantaged; tender compassion; also, at times, a lightening of judgment or punishment.
Mercy is a frequent translation of the Hebrew ra·chamimʹ and the Greek eʹle·os (verb, e·le·eʹo). An examination of these terms and their usage helps bring out their full flavor and sense. The Hebrew verb ra·chamʹ is defined as meaning “to glow, to feel warm with tender emotion; . . . to be compassionate.” (A Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, edited by B. Davies, 1957, p. 590) According to lexicographer Gesenius: “The primary idea seems to lie in cherishing, soothing, and in a gentle emotion of mind.” (A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, translated by E. Robinson, 1836, p. 939) The term is closely related to the word for “womb” or can refer to “bowels,” which are affected when one feels warm and tender sympathy or pity.
In the Scriptures ra·chamʹ is used only once by man toward God, the psalmist saying: “I shall have affection [form of ra·chamʹ] for you, O Jehovah my strength.” (Ps 18:1) Between humans, Joseph displayed this quality when “his inward emotions [form of ra·chamimʹ] were excited” toward his brother Benjamin and he gave way to tears. (Ge 43:29, 30; compare 1Ki 3:25, 26.) When people were subjected to the possibility of being dealt with harshly or unfeelingly by captors (1Ki 8:50; Jer 42:10-12) or by officials of superior authority (Ge 43:14; Ne 1:11; Da 1:9), they desired and prayed to become objects of pity or mercy before such ones, hence, to be treated with favor, gentleness, consideration.
Jehovah’s Mercy. The term’s most frequent use is with regard to Jehovah’s dealings with his covenant people. God showing pity (ra·chamʹ) toward these is compared with a woman showing pity toward the children of her womb and with a father showing mercy toward his sons. (Isa 49:15; Ps 103:13) Since the nation of Israel frequently strayed from righteousness and came into sore straits, they often became especially in need of merciful help. If they showed a right heart attitude and turned to Jehovah, he, though having been angry with them, would express compassion, favor, goodwill. (De 13:17; 30:3; Ps 102:13; Isa 54:7-10; 60:10) His sending his Son to be born in Israel was evidence of a coming “daybreak” of divine compassion and mercy for them.
The Greek eʹle·os conveys some of the sense of the Hebrew ra·chamimʹ. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says: “ELEOS (ἔλεος) ‘is 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.’” The verb (e·le·eʹo) generally conveys the idea of feeling “sympathy with the misery of another, and especially sympathy manifested in act.” (1981, Vol. 3, pp. 60, 61) Hence, the blind, the demon-possessed, the leprous, or those whose children were afflicted were among those who evoked eʹle·os, the expression of mercy, pity. (Mt 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; Mr 5:18, 19; Lu 17:12, 13) In response to the plea, “Have mercy on us,” Jesus performed miracles relieving such ones. He did so, not in a routine, apathetic way, but “moved with pity” (Mt 20:31, 34), the Gospel writer here using a form of the verb splag·khniʹzo·mai, which is related to splagʹkhna, literally meaning “intestines.” (Ac 1:18) This verb expresses the feeling of pity, whereas eʹle·os refers to the active manifestation of such pity, hence an act of mercy.
Not limited to judicial action. In English the word “mercy” quite generally conveys the idea of refraining, exercising restraint, such as in the administering of punishment, this restraint being motivated by compassion or sympathy. Thus, it frequently has a judicial flavor, as when a judge shows clemency in softening the judgment upon a wrongdoer. Since God’s exercise of mercy is always in harmony with his other qualities and righteous standards, including his justice and trueness (Ps 40:11; Ho 2:19), and since all men are by inheritance sinful and worthy of receiving sin’s payment of death (Ro 5:12; compare Ps 130:3, 4; Da 9:18; Tit 3:5), it is clear that the pardoning of error, or the lightening of judgment or punishment, is frequently involved in God’s exercise of mercy. (Ps 51:1, 2; 103:3, 4; Da 9:9; Mic 7:18, 19) However, it can be seen from the preceding information that the Hebrew and Greek terms (ra·chamimʹ; eʹle·os) are not limited to forgiveness or restraint in applying a judicial penalty. Pardon of error of itself is not the mercy generally portrayed by these terms, but, rather, such forgiveness opens the way for that mercy. In expressing mercy, God, of course, never ignores his perfect standards of justice, and for this reason he has provided the ransom sacrifice through his Son Jesus Christ, making possible the forgiveness of sins with no violation of justice.
Mercy, then, most frequently refers, not to a negative action, a holding back (as of punishment), but to a positive action, to an expression of kind consideration or pity that brings relief to those who are disadvantaged, in need of mercy.
This is well illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Samaritan who saw the traveler lying by the roadside, robbed and beaten. He showed himself “neighbor” to the man because, moved with pity, he “acted mercifully toward him,” treating his wounds and caring for him. (Lu 10:29-37) No forgiveness of wrongdoing or judicial proceedings were involved.
Hence, the Scriptures show that the mercifulness of Jehovah God is not a quality that comes into play only when persons are, in effect, “on trial” before him because of having committed some particular wrong. Rather, it is a characteristic quality of God’s personality, his normal way of reacting toward those in need, a facet of his love. (2Co 1:3; 1Jo 4:8) He is not like the false gods of the nations
Mankind’s need. Obviously, mankind’s basic and greatest disability comes from sin, inherited from their forefather Adam. Thus, all are in dire need, in a pitiable state. Jehovah God has acted mercifully toward mankind as a whole by providing the means for them to become free from this great disability and its consequences of sickness and death. (Mt 20:28; Tit 3:4-7; 1Jo 2:2) As a merciful God, he exercises patience because “he does not desire any to be destroyed but desires all to attain to repentance.” (2Pe 3:9) Jehovah is desirous of doing good toward all, he prefers this (compare Isa 30:18, 19), he finds ‘no delight in the death of the wicked,’ and “not out of his own heart has he afflicted or does he grieve the sons of men,” as in the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. (Eze 33:11; La 3:31-33) It is the hardheartedness of persons, their obstinacy and refusal to respond to his graciousness and mercifulness, that obliges him to take a different course toward them, causes his mercies to be “shut off” from flowing toward them.
Not to be presumed upon. While Jehovah has great mercy toward those who draw near to him in sincerity, he will by no means exempt from punishment those who are unrepentant and really deserving of punishment. (Ex 34:6, 7) A person cannot presume on God’s mercy; he cannot sin with complete impunity or be exempted from the natural results or outworking of his wrong course of action. (Ga 6:7, 8; compare Nu 12:1-3, 9-15; 2Sa 12:9-14.) Jehovah may mercifully show patience and long-suffering, giving persons the opportunity to correct their wrong course; though manifesting disapproval, he may not completely abandon them but may mercifully continue supplying them a measure of aid and direction. (Compare Ne 9:18, 19, 27-31.) But if they do not respond, his patience has its limits and he withdraws his mercy and acts against them for his own name’s sake.
Not governed by human standards. It is not up to humans to try to establish their own standards or criteria by which God should show mercy. From his heavenly vantage point and in harmony with his own good purpose, with his own long-range view of the future and his ability to read the heart, he ‘shows mercy to whom he will show mercy.’ (Ex 33:19; Ro 9:15-18; compare 2Ki 13:23; Mt 20:12-15.) At Romans chapter 11 the apostle discusses God’s display of unparalleled wisdom and mercy in giving to the Gentiles an opportunity to enter the heavenly Kingdom. The Gentiles were outside the commonwealth of God’s nation, Israel, and hence previously not the recipients of the mercies resulting from covenant relationship with God; and they also lived in disobedience to God. (Compare Ro 9:24-26; Ho 2:23.) Paul explains that Israel first had the opportunity but that they were, for the most part, disobedient. This resulted in opening up the way for Gentiles to become part of the promised “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:5, 6) Paul concludes: “For God has shut them all up together [Jews and Gentiles] in disobedience, that he might show all of them mercy.” Through Christ’s ransom sacrifice, the Adamic sin working in all mankind could be removed for all those exercising faith (including Gentiles), and through his death on the torture stake the curse of the Law could also be removed from those under it (the Jews), so that all could receive mercy. The apostle exclaims: “O the depth of God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How unsearchable his judgments are and past tracing out his ways are!”
Seeking God’s Mercy. Those desirous of enjoying the flow of God’s mercy must seek him, showing a right heart condition by abandoning their wrong ways and harmful thoughts (Isa 55:6, 7); they must properly fear him and show appreciation for his righteous precepts (Ps 103:13; 119:77, 156, 157; Lu 1:50); and if they deviate from the righteous course they have been following, they must not try to cover it over but must confess it and manifest genuine contrition and heartfelt sadness (Ps 51:1, 17; Pr 28:13). Another absolute essential is that they themselves be merciful. Jesus said: “Happy are the merciful, since they will be shown mercy.”
Gifts of Mercy. The Pharisees showed an unmerciful attitude toward others and were rebuked by Jesus with the words: “Go, then, and learn what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Mt 9:10-13; 12:1-7; compare Ho 6:6.) He placed mercy among the weightier matters of the Law. (Mt 23:23) As noted, while such mercy could embrace judicial clemency, such as the Pharisees might have opportunity to show, perhaps as members of the Sanhedrin, it was not limited to this. More basically it referred to active manifestation of pity or compassion, deeds of mercy.
This mercy might be expressed in material giving. But to count with God, it must be properly motivated, not be mere ‘enlightened selfishness.’ (Mt 6:1-4) Material things were among the “gifts of mercy [form of e·le·e·mo·syʹne]” in which Dorcas abounded (Ac 9:36, 39), and doubtless also among those of Cornelius, whose gifts together with his prayers brought a favorable hearing with God. (Ac 10:2, 4, 31) Jesus said the failure of the Pharisees was in not giving “as gifts of mercy the things that are inside.” (Lu 11:41) Thus true mercy must proceed from the heart.
Jesus and his disciples were notable especially for their merciful giving of spiritual gifts of far greater value than material things. (Compare Joh 6:35; Ac 3:1-8.) Members of the Christian congregation, particularly those acting as ‘shepherds’ therein (1Pe 5:1, 2), must cultivate the quality of mercy. Both in material and in spiritual ways their mercy should be exercised “with cheerfulness,” never begrudgingly. (Ro 12:8) The faith of certain members of the congregation may become weak, causing them to become spiritually ill, even to express doubts. Because these approach the danger of spiritual death, their fellow Christians are exhorted to maintain the flow of mercy to these and help them to avoid a destructive end. While continuing to show mercy to some whose actions have not been proper, they need to be careful not to fall into temptation themselves, being conscious that they must not only love righteousness but also hate what is bad. Hence their mercy does not imply any condoning of wrong.
Mercy Exults Triumphantly Over Judgment. The disciple James states: “For the one that does not practice mercy will have his judgment without mercy. Mercy exults triumphantly over judgment.” (Jas 2:13) The context shows that he is developing the thoughts expressed earlier as to true worship, including the expression of mercy in caring for those afflicted, and in not showing favoritism and discriminating against the poor in favor of the rich. (Jas 1:27; 2:1-9) His following words also indicate this, as they deal with the needs of brothers “in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day.” (Jas 2:14-17) Hence, his words correspond to those of Jesus, that it is the merciful who will be shown mercy. (Mt 5:7; compare Mt 6:12; 18:32-35.) When brought into judgment by God, those who have been merciful
The Mercy of God’s High Priest. The book of Hebrews explains why Jesus, as the High Priest far greater than any priest of the Aaronic line, had to become a man, suffer, and die: “Consequently he was obliged to become like his ‘brothers’ in all respects, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, in order to offer propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the people.” Having suffered under test, “he is able to come to the aid of those who are being put to the test.” (Heb 2:17, 18) Because of having the record of Jesus’ life, his words and deeds, those addressing themselves to God through Jesus can do so with confidence. “For we have as high priest, not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in all respects like ourselves, but without sin. Let us, therefore, approach with freeness of speech to the throne of undeserved kindness, that we may obtain mercy and find undeserved kindness for help at the right time.”
Jesus’ sacrificing his own life was an outstanding act of mercy and love. In his heavenly position as High Priest, he gave evidence of his mercifulness, as in his dealings with Paul (Saul), showing him mercy because of Paul’s ignorance. Paul states: “Nevertheless, the reason why I was shown mercy was that by means of me as the foremost case Christ Jesus might demonstrate all his long-suffering for a sample of those who are going to rest their faith on him for everlasting life.” (1Ti 1:13-16) Even as Jesus’ Father, Jehovah God, showed mercy many times to Israel in saving them from their enemies, freeing them from their oppressors, and bringing them into a peaceful, prosperous state, so, too, Christians may have firm hope in the mercy to be expressed through God’s Son. Hence Jude writes: “Keep yourselves in God’s love, while you are waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ with everlasting life in view.” (Jude 21) God’s wonderful mercy through Christ encourages true Christians not to give up in their ministry and to carry it out in an unselfish way.
Merciful Treatment of Animals. Proverbs 12:10 says: “The righteous one is caring for the soul of his domestic animal, but the mercies of the wicked ones are cruel.” Whereas the righteous person knows the needs of his animals and has a feeling for their welfare, the wicked person’s mercies are not stirred up by these needs. According to the selfish, unfeeling principles of the world, the treatment of one’s animals is based only on what benefit one might gain from them. What the wicked person would consider adequate care might actually be cruel treatment. (Contrast Ge 33:12-14.) The righteous person’s concern for his animals finds precedent in God’s own care for them as part of his creation.
Mercy and Kindness. Other words closely associated with and frequently used in connection with the terms ra·chamimʹ and eʹle·os are the Hebrew cheʹsedh (Ps 25:6; 69:16; Jer 16:5; La 3:22) and the Greek khaʹris (1Ti 1:2; Heb 4:16; 2Jo 3), meaning, respectively, “loving-kindness (loyal love)” and “undeserved kindness.” Cheʹsedh differs from ra·chamimʹ in that it stresses devotion or loyal loving attachment to the object of the kindness, whereas ra·chamimʹ lays emphasis on the tender sympathy or pity felt. Similarly the principal difference between khaʹris and eʹle·os is that khaʹris expresses especially the idea of a free and undeserved gift, thus emphasizing the freeheartedness and generosity of the giver, whereas eʹle·os stresses the merciful response to the needs of those afflicted or disadvantaged. Thus, khaʹris (undeserved kindness) was shown by God to his own Son when he “kindly gave [e·kha·riʹsa·to] him the name that is above every other name.” (Php 2:9) This kindness was motivated not by pity but by God’s loving generosity.