MERCY, MERCIFUL (Hebrew hesedh, kindness, raham, bowels, hānan, gracious, Gr. eleos, kindness, oiktirmos, compassion) is the compassion that causes one to help the weak, the sick, or the poor. Showing mercy is one of the cardinal virtues of a true Christian (Jas.2.1-Jas.2.13) and is one of the determinants of God’s treatment of us. Christian mercy is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal.5.22-Gal.5.23), made up in part of love, longsuffering, kindness, gentleness, and goodness. Mercy can also be defined as forbearance from inflicting punishment on an adversary or a lawbreaker.
Present usage identifies mercy with compassion, in the sense of a willingness to forgive an offender or adversary and, more generally, simply by a disposition to spare or help another. This disposition, although inwardly felt, manifests itself outwardly in some kind of action. It is evident that mercy combines a strong emotional element, usually identified as pity, compassion, or love, with some practical demonstration of kindness in response to the condition or needs of the object of mercy.
In defining the word mercy, as employed by various English versions, one must consider a variety of Hebrew and Greek terminology. Such a consideration will not only illuminate the richness of mercy vocabulary, but will demonstrate something of the difficulty experienced by translators in past attempts at uniformity in handling the subject.
Mercy in the Old Testament
רָחַם, H8163. This is the most common of the Hebrew root-concepts used by modern translations for “mercy.” It conveys the original sense of a physical seat of the compassion felt for another, whether identified with the bowels (modern equivalent: heart) or the womb (Gen 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26). This physically-based emotion most naturally expresses itself in the context of family or fraternal ties. It is the expected reaction of a mother toward her sucking child (Isa 49:15), of a father toward his dear son (Jer 31:20), of a lover toward his betrothed (Hos 2:19), and of a brother toward his brother (Amos 1:11).
As a denominative Piel verb, rḥm can describe the attitude of God in response to the misery of His people (2 Kings 13:23, where it is based both on their condition and God’s remembrance of His covenant), or simply the sovereign attitude of God in response to His will (Exod 33:19, with which cf. Rom 9:15). When man is the subject, rḥm is seen as a natural response where there is already some family tie (u.s.). Where no such tie exists, as in the case of a conqueror who shows compassion toward the conquered, the Bible uniformly attributes the real motivation to God, whose action behind the scenes creates compassion in an otherwise uncompassionate individual (cf. Isa 13:18; Jer 6:23; 21:7 with 1 Kings 8:50 and Jer 42:12).
As a noun, rachamîm (a plural of intensity) is simply that emotion of pity, compassion, or love which is activated in each of the relationships noted above. Psalm 103:4 points to rachamîm as a quality extended to the redeemed as one of Yahweh’s benefits. Daniel 9:9 shows it to be a characteristic of God in light of which the rebellious may make their plea. It is mercy that gives a covenant-man hope for continued relationship with his God, and, in fact, it is this quality which the believer is commanded to exemplify in his relationships with others, particularly those in special need (Zech 7:9, 10). This latter prophetic commandment points back to the true cause of mercy, i.e., the pitiable condition of the one in need.
חֶ֫סֶד, H2876. A second Hebrew word, ḥesed, is rendered “mercy” by the KJV, but, with the exception of Psalm 23:6, the translation does not appear in the RSV. In the latter version, “steadfast love” is the usual substitute, a change reflecting widespread acceptance of the work of Nelson Glueck, whose 1927 dissertation demonstrated the connection of ḥesed with covenant terminology. It has been shown to include, at least in earlier material, the element of loyalty, devotion, or faithfulness to the demands of a covenant (Exod 20:6; Josh 2:12-14). In the later writings, however, it moves beyond this sense of obligation and is charged with an indefinable but clearly emotional content. This manifestation of kindness and goodness, compassion and sympathy, both as demonstrated by God (Jer 3:13) and as required of man (Zech 7:9, where ḥesed and rachamîm are parallel), makes ḥesed almost indistinguishable from rachamîm.
חָנַן, H2858. A third shade of meaning connected with the concept of mercy is seen in the Hebrew verb chnn and its derivatives. The verbal form is normally translated by the KJV as “Be merciful” in the Psalms, and as “Be gracious” or “Show favor” in other passages. The RSV more consistently follows the translation “Be gracious,” but makes exceptions (Deut 7:2; Pss 57:1; 123:2, 3).
The root idea is found in the frequently used noun chēn, simply meaning favor, success, acceptance, or even, in modern terms, good fortune (Gen 39:4; Num 32:5), and usually incorporated into the expression, “find grace in the eyes of....” Although it is still the condition of the suppliant to which appeal is made (cf. Job 19:21 where chnn is tr. “Have pity on me”), the emphasis is on the success granted to the one in need.
That such response is not limited to God is shown by the advice given to man to show favor, or be kind, to the poor, the needy, widows, and orphans (Pss 37:21, 26; 112:5; Prov 14:21, 31; 19:17; 28:8, all in wisdom context). The sense of pitying or sparing the object of chnn is even more explicit in Deuteronomy 7:2 where the Israelites are commanded, “make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to (or ‘do not spare’) them.”
חָמַל, H2798, and חוּס, H2571. Two final Hebrew words form a minor part of the mercy vocabulary. Each one in its verbal form may be translated “to show compassion,” “to pity,” or “to spare.” Whether the inclination originates from the plight of the object or within the mind of the one acting must be determined from the context.
Mercy in the New Testament
In the New Testament, concepts included in the roots hsd, rhm, hnn, hml, and hus often are expressed by words other than mercy. (See Atonement; Bowels; Faithfulness; Forgiveness; and Grace.)
Eleos in the sense of hesed (i.e., the covenant faithfulness owed to one another in mutual relationships) is also found in the gospels, esp. in the several references to eleos employed in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:50, 54) and Zechariah’s prophecy (1:72, 78). Such usage, however, is never seen as mere legal obligation. Rather, it is an internalizing of the obligations of the covenant, so strongly proclaimed in the prophetic kerygma (Hos 6:6 KJV), that Jesus urged on the covenant people of His day (Matt 9:13 RSV; 12:7). It was only as the Pharisees learned the true meaning of hesed, a meaning intimately connected with rahamîm, that they could accept the meeting of human need and a redemptive ministry to sinful men as the true fulfillment of covenant obligation.
οἰκτιρμός, G3880. A second, less frequent word also reflects the thought behind rahamîm, and appears as the plural (probably to be regarded as a Semitism) designation of God’s collected sympathies and concerns (Rom 12:1; 2 Cor 1:3). The verbal form is used only once (Rom 9:15) where it is obviously parallel to eleëō. When applied to human emotions, oiktirmos clearly shows the same physical seat of deep concern that was noted earlier in rahamîm, a thought evident in its relationship to splagchna, “bowels” (Col 3:12 KJV and Phil 2:1 RSV, the latter of which is a hendiadys).
Mercy, therefore, in Biblical usage, is many-faceted. Basic to the concept is God’s care for man in his wretchedness and creatureliness. This emotionally-based response manifests itself in His redemptive acts. The man responding to God sees in himself one who has received mercy; therefore he in turn must show mercy to his fellow man.
Mercy can be thought of as:
it is associated with forgiveness (Ex 34:7; Nu 14:18; 1Ti 1:13,16);
with His forbearance (Ps 145:8, "Yahweh is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great lovingkindness"; compare Roman 2:4; 11:32);
with His covenant (1Ki 8:23; Ne 1:5), with His justice (Ps 101:1), with His faithfulness (Ps 89:24), with His truth (Ps 108:4); mercy and truth are united in Pr 3:3; 14:22, etc. (in Ps 85:10 we have "Mercy and truth are met together");
it goes forth to all (Ps 145:9, "Yahweh is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works"; compare 145:16, "Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing," the Revised Version margin "satisfiest every living thing with favor");
it shows itself in pitying help (Ex 3:7; Ezr 9:9 f), supremely in Christ and His salvation (Lu 1:50,54,58; Eph 2:4);
it is abundant, practically infinite (Ps 86:5,15; 119:64);
it is everlasting (1Ch 16:34,41; Ezr 3:11; Ps 100:5; 136 repeatedly).
J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture, I-II (1926), 309, 525.
W. F. Lofthouse, “Hen and Hesed in the OT,” ZAW, XLI (1933), 29-35.
R. Bultmann, “ἔλεος, G1799,” TDNT, II (1964, Ger. original 1935), 477-487.
F. Büchsel, “ἱλεως,” TDNT, III (1965, Ger. original 1938), 300, 301.
W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of NT Words, III (1940), 60-63.
N. H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas in the OT (1944), 95; N. H. Snaith, “Loving-kindness,” RTWB (1951), 136, 137.
R. Bultmann, “οἰκτιρμός, G3880,” TDNT, V (1967, Ger. original 1954), 159-161.
C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1954), 55-69.
U. Masing, “Der Begriff Hesed im Alttestamentlichen Sprachgebrauch,” Charisteria Iohanni Kopp: Papers of the Estonian Theological Society in Exile #7 (1954), 29-63.
W. L. Reed, “Some Implications of hen for OT Religion,” JBL, LXXIII (1954), 36-41.
A. R. Johnson, “Hesed and Hasid,” Interpretationes ad Vetus Testamentum Pertinentes Sigmundo Mowinckel (1955), 100-112.
W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, I (1961), 232-239.
L. J. Kuyper, “Grace and Truth,” Reformed Review, XVI (1962), 1-16.
N. Glueck, Hesed in the Bible (1967, rev. from Ger. original, 1927).