This is a frequent translation of the Hebrew ra·hhamʹ 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. In many cases, though not all, the thought of pity is conveyed or implied.
The Hebrew verb ra·hhamʹ is defined as meaning “to glow, to feel warm with tender emotion; . . . to be compassionate.” According to lexicographer Gesenius: “The primary idea seems to lie in cherishing, soothing and a gentle emotion of mind.” 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.—Compare Isaiah 63:15, 16; Jeremiah 31:20.
In the Scriptures ra·hhamʹ is used only once by man toward God, the psalmist saying: “I shall have affection [form of ra·hhamʹ] for you, O Jehovah my strength.” (Ps. 18:1) Between humans, Joseph displayed this quality when “his inward emotions [form of ra·hhamʹ] were excited” toward his younger brother Benjamin and he gave way to tears. (Gen. 43:29, 30; compare 1 Kings 3:25, 26.) Those subjected to the possibility of being dealt with harshly or unfeelingly by captors (1 Ki. 8:50; Jer. 42:10-12) or by officials of superior authority (Gen. 43:14; Neh. 1:11; Dan. 1:9) desired and prayed to become objects of pity or mercy before such ones, hence, to be treated with favor, gentleness, consideration.—Contrast Isaiah 13:17, 18.
The term’s most frequent use is with regard to Jehovah’s dealings with his covenant people. God’s pity (ra·hhamʹ) toward these is compared with that of a woman toward the children of her womb and with a father’s 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. (Deut. 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.—Luke 1:50-58, 72-78.
The Greek eʹle·os conveys some of the sense of the Hebrew ra·hhamʹ. W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of 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.” (Vol. III, 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. (Matt. 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; Mark 5:18, 19; Luke 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” (Matt. 20:33, 34), the Gospel writer here using a form of the verb splag·khniʹzo·mai, which literally means “to feel the bowels yearn.” This latter 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; Hos. 2:19), and since all men are by inheritance sinful and worthy of receiving sin’s payment of death (Rom. 5:12; compare Psalm 130:3, 4; Daniel 9:18; Titus 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. 51:12; 103:3, 4; Dan. 9:9; Mic. 7:18, 19) However, it can be seen from the preceding information that the Hebrew and Greek terms (ra·hhamʹ; 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 Christ Jesus, making possible the forgiveness of sins with no violation of justice.—Rom. 3:25, 26.
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. (Luke 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 due to having committed some particular wrong-doing Rather, it is a characteristic quality of God’s personality, his normal way of reacting toward those in need, a facet of his love. (2 Cor. 1:3; 1 John 4:8) He is not like the false gods of the nations, unfeeling, non-compassionate gods. Instead, “Jehovah is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and great in loving-kindness. Jehovah is good to all, and his mercies are over all his works.” (Ps. 145:8, 9; compare Psalm 25:8; 104:14, 15, 20-28; Matthew 5:45-48; Acts 14:15-17.) He is “rich in mercy,” and the wisdom proceeding from him is “full of mercy.” (Eph. 2:4; Jas. 3:17) His Son, who revealed what his Father is like (John 1:18), showed this by his own personality, speech and acts. When crowds came out to hear him, and even before seeing their reaction to what he would say, Jesus was “moved with pity [form of splag·khniʹzo·mai]” because they were “skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.”—Mark 6:34; Matt. 9:36; compare Matthew 14:14; 15:32.
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. (1 Tim. 2:3-6; Titus 3:4-7; 1 John 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.” (2 Pet. 3:9) Jehovah is desirous of doing good toward all, prefers this (compare Isaiah 30:18, 19), 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. (Ezek. 33:11; Lam. 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.—Ps. 77:9; Jer. 13:10, 14; Isa. 13:9; Rom. 2:4-11.
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) One 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. (Gal. 6:7, 8; compare Numbers 12:1-3, 9-15; 2 Samuel 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 Nehemiah 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.—Isa. 9:17; 63:7-10; Jer. 16:5-13, 21; compare Luke 13:6-9.
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 human hearts, he ‘shows mercy to whom he will show mercy.’ (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15-18; compare 2 Kings 13:23; Matthew 20:12-15.) At Romans chapter eleven the apostle discusses God’s display of unparalleled wisdom and mercy in giving an opportunity of entering the heavenly kingdom to the Gentiles. 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 Romans 9:24-26; Hosea 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!”—Rom. 11:30-33; John 3:16; Col. 2:13, 14; Gal. 3:13.
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; Luke 1:50); and if they deviate from the righteous course they have been following, they must not try to cover it over but confess it and manifest genuine contrition and heartfelt sadness. (Ps. 51:1, 17; Prov. 28:13) Another absolute essential is that they themselves must be merciful. Jesus said: “Happy are the merciful, since they will be shown mercy.”—Matt. 5:7.
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.’” (Matt. 9:10-13; 12:1-7; compare Hosea 6:6.) He placed mercy among the weightier matters of the Law. (Matt. 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 is not limited to this. More basically it refers to active manifestation of pity or compassion, deeds of mercy.—Compare Deuteronomy 15:7-11.
This mercy might be expressed in material giving. But to count with God it must be properly motivated, not be mere ‘enlightened selfishness.’ (Matt. 6:1-4) Material things were among the “‘gifts of mercy [form of e·le·e·mo·syʹne]” in which Dorcas abounded (Acts 9:36, 39), and doubtless also among those of Cornelius, whose gifts together with his prayers brought a favorable hearing with God. (Acts 10:2, 4, 31) Jesus said the failure of the Pharisees was in not giving “as gifts of mercy the things that are inside.” (Luke 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 John 6:35; Acts 3:1-8.) Members of the Christian congregation, particularly those acting as ‘shepherds’ therein (1 Pet. 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. (Rom. 12:8) The faith of certain members of the congregation may become weak, causing them to become spiritually ill, even to express doubts. Due to the danger of spiritual death these approach, their fellow Christians are exhorted to maintain the flow of mercy to these and aid them to avoid a destructive end. While continuing to show mercy to some whose actions have not been proper, they will 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.—Jude 22, 23; compare 1 John 5:16, 17.
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 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 with those of Jesus, that it is the merciful who will be shown mercy. (Matt. 5:7; compare Matthew 6:12; 18:32-35.) When brought into judgment by God those who have been merciful, showing pity, compassion, and giving active aid to those in need, will, in turn, be shown mercy by God and thus their mercy will in effect triumph against any adverse judgment that might otherwise be leveled against them. As the Proverb states: “He that is showing favor to the lowly one is lending to Jehovah, and his treatment He will repay to him.” (Prov. 19:17) The point made by James is corroborated by many other texts.—Compare Job 31:16-23, 32; Psalms 37:21, 26; 112:5; Proverbs 14:21; 17:5; 21:13; 28:27; 2 Timothy 1:16, 18; Hebrews 13:16.
THE MERCY OF GOD’S HIGH PRIEST
The book of Hebrews explains why Jesus, as the High Priest far greater than the Aaronic priesthood, 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.”—Heb. 4:15, 16.
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 due to 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.” (1 Tim. 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.—2 Cor. 4:1, 2.
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 (or “bowels of affection”) 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 Genesis 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.—Compare Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 25:4; 22:4, 6, 7; 11:15; Psalm 104:14, 27; Jonah 4:11.
MERCY AND KINDNESS
Other words closely associated with and frequently used in connection with the terms ra·hhamʹ and eʹle·os are the Hebrew hheʹsedh (Ps. 25:6; 69:16; Jer. 16:5; Lam. 3:22) and the Greek khaʹris (1 Tim. 1:2; Heb. 4:16; 2 John 3), meaning, respectively, loving-kindness (or, loyal love) and undeserved kindness. Hheʹsedh differs from ra·hhamʹ in that it stresses devotion or loyal loving attachment to the object of the kindness, whereas ra·hhamʹ 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 free-heartedness 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.” (Phil. 2:9) This kindness was not motivated by pity but by God’s loving generosity.—See KINDNESS.