1. Definition. 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. See Pity COMPASSION.
In defining the word mercy, as employed by various Eng. VSS, one must consider a variety of Heb. and Gr. terminology. Such a consideration will not only illuminate the richness of mercy vocabulary, but will demonstrate something of the difficulty experienced by trs. in past attempts at uniformity in handling the subject.
2. Mercy in the OT. a. רָחַם, H8163. This is the most common of the Heb. root-concepts used by modern trs. 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 (
As a denominative Piel verb, rḥm can describe the attitude of God in response to the misery of His people (
As a noun, rachamîm (a pl. of intensity) is simply that emotion of pity, compassion, or love which is activated in each of the relationships noted above.
b. חֶ֫סֶד֮, H2876. A second Heb. word, ḥesed, is rendered “mercy” by the KJV, but, with the exception of
c. חָנַנ֒, H2858. A third shade of meaning connected with the concept of mercy is seen in the Heb. verb chnn and its derivatives. The verbal form is normally tr. 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 tr. “Be gracious,” but makes exceptions (
The root idea is found in the frequently used noun chēn, simply meaning favor, success, acceptance, or even, in modern terms, good fortune (
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 (
d. חָמַל, H2798, and חוּס, H2571. Two final Heb. words form a minor part of the mercy vocabulary. Each one in its verbal form may be tr. “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.
3. Mercy in the NT. In the NT, concepts included in the roots hsd, rhm, hnn, hml, and hus often are expressed by words other than mercy. (See Atonement; Bowels; Faithfulness 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 (
b. οἰκτιρμός, G3880. A second, less frequent word also reflects the thought behind rahamîm, and appears as the pl. (prob. to be regarded as a Semitism) designation of God’s collected sympathies and concerns (
4. Summary. 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.
Bibliography 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).