Mercy in the Scriptures: Memory and Transformation 

David McLoughlin explores the emergence of divine mercy throughout the Scriptures. From the Exodus to the Gospels, mercy becomes the inspiration of Christ’s life, words and deeds.

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The Hebrew Scriptures have within them a growing pedagogy of the transformation of the idea of God. And the centrality of mercy to this idea becomes ever greater from the time of the Exodus to the Prophets, and then beyond, to Jesus. There are a cluster of Hebrew words which refer to mercy but two in particular, Rechamin and Hesed, sum up the mercy of God.

Compassion and faithful loving kindness

Rachamin, the word for mercy as compassion, is derived from Rechem – the womb. In Semitic thought it is the intestines not the heart which are the seat of the emotions. God’s mercy has the quality of the mother’s love for the foetus within her. In the Old Testament, mercy is not the opposite of justice but serves justice as the inner justice of God. Mercy is also linked to the leb or lebab – the heart, as the seat of judgement, the core of human being.

The Bible speaks of God’s heart above all in the Prophet Hosea:

How could I give you up O Ephraim, or deliver you up O Israel?… My heart is overwhelmed my pity is stirred…!”

And the word Hesed is only ever used of persons, never of things, it presumes a given established relationship and it implies an action. It includes the unmerited loving kindness, friendship, favour and grace, God’s free and gracious turning to us – hesed we’emet is faithful loving-kindness. This is an ongoing attitude, beyond any possible reciprocation on our behalf, beyond anything we could expect. It is mysterious and we know it only because God has revealed it as central to Godself. It becomes the central term for expressing God’s Covenant relationship to Israel. It implies commitment and the meeting of needs yet total freedom.

The Fall and Grace

In the Bible story this quality of divine mercy starts early. After the Fall it is God who makes the clothes for the newly ashamed Adam and Eve despite the disorder they have brought to nature. It is the mercy of God that marks Cain to protect him from retribution. It is the mercy of God that turns to Noah and offers the possibility of a new beginning in Genesis 8:21 and 9:1-5.

With the call and blessing of Abraham a new saving space and a new saving history start with a new possibility of well-being, peace, full life and God’s hesed is God’s mercy or favour. God’s mercy continues to create new spaces for life and blessing, above all in the Promised Land where the exile, migrant, and stranger, can find a welcome and a place.

The revelation to Moses on Mount Horeb makes this clear. This strange God, Yahweh, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so the beginnings of salvation history are linked back to Abraham and the story of God’s primordial mercy. Mercy is seen as of God from the beginning, but only coming to explicit expression after the Covenant is broken. Moses comes down from the mountain and is furious with the turning of his people to idolatry. He smashes the Tablets of the words of life on the ground to express God’s rightful anger and then almost immediately tries to intercede for his people. It is then that the words of this mysterious God come “I will be gracious (hen) to whom I will be gracious and will show (rachamin) mercy on whom I will show mercy “ (Exodus 33:19).

Here God’s mercy is seen as expressing God’s radical freedom. God’s primary fallback position is not retaliatory justice. Rather his mercy expresses a core dimension of his name “I will be present as the one who will be there” which is how the Jewish scholars Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig translate of “I am who I am” – Yahweh”. This reflects dynamically the Covenant promise “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7). God is strange and escapes our defining and imagining – but chooses to reveal Godself as mercy.

The third time God reveals the divine name to Moses is in Exodus 34: 6 “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful (rachum) and gracious (hanum), slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (emet).” So here mercy expresses both God’s sovereign freedom but also God’s chosen fidelity to these wretched 12 gangs of migrant workers.

The basis for all of this is not human reasoning, or mystical vision but a retrospective reflection on the historical self-revelation of God – it is told as a story – not as theology or speculation. The Hebrew Scriptures are written backwards and forwards through the perspective of the Exodus and the Covenant. Paradise is a prophecy for the future – what God wants for us – is written back as story into the origins.

Mercy among the prophets

Later at the time of the first Prophets, Hosea and Amos, Hosea is living through the break-up of the Northern Kingdom (around 722 BCE). The people have compromised with surrounding religions and prostituted the Covenant.  Hosea thinks the Covenant is broken. In verse 6 of chapter one, he says God will show no more mercy. But in chapter 11 God’s mercy turns his own heart upside down and mercy triumphs over justice “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). So here again, God’s reality is not revealed in some terrible transcendence, or in righteous anger, but in mercy. And still God remains wholly other – but now this very quality of mercy distinguishes him from humanity. So God’s sovereignty is seen in his forgiveness and pardoning. This is the profound basis of the reconciliation seen at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Ultimately, this is the reason for the existence of the church – to continue this divine quality of mercy and reconciliation within the world.

In God’s mercy, God is revealed as both wholly other and yet so close. God is the God of revelation in his mercy but also hidden and incomprehensible in that love and graciousness. In the Jewish and Christian traditions it is mercy that holds together divine transcendence/mystery and divine immanence/accessibility. But it doesn’t allow for an easy chumminess.

So in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s mercy is coupled with graciousness and fidelity. But in the prophet Hosea it is linked to God’s holiness and reveals that holiness. However, the link between mercy and holiness is not immediately obvious. “Qadosh/Holy” normally implies set apart – different and superior to the worldly and the evil – cf. Isaiah’s vision of the Seraphim singing “Holy, holy, holy!” – which make him feel unworthy and sinful. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean Lips.” (Isaiah 6:3-5). God’s mercy is not to be trifled with; it’s not the mercy of the fool but of the all-holy. Nietzsche said God died because of his pity. But Nietzsche saw the divine pity as a weakness.[1]

Because of his holiness, God opposes evil – what the Bible refers to as the “wrath of God”. This is not some extreme rage but the expression of God’s holiness; we can’t simply get rid of judgement. God’s holiness and God’s justice/zedakah go together; but in the Hebrew Scriptures this is a sign of hope – directed to the coming of the righteous Messiah (Isaiah 11:4; Psalms 5-9 etc.). Evidence of justice in a self-evidently unjust world is already a manifestation of mercy for the oppressed, the marginalised, and those whose rights are denied. From his Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses this well when he says that God’s mercy is not cheap grace.

Amos 5:7, 24; 6:12; and Hosea 2:21; 12:2 clearly expect us to do what is right. They see God holding back his justified wrath to provide the space and opportunity for conversion. The divine mercy offers us an opportunity for transformation – a time of grace. We see this in Jesus’ open table fellowship – where people experience the kingdom before being challenged to enter it. And in his parables which offer opportunities for seeing things differently metanaoia.

After the experience of seeming judgement and abandonment, God says to his people through Isaiah: “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you … For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord who has compassion on you.”
(Isaiah 54:7-8)

This is not the world of guilt, punishment and retribution – it does not contradict justice – but serves it. In God’s sovereign freedom he establishes justice in his way – and his way is fidelity (in Hebrew – emet) – which comes from the stem aman – meaning to stand or hold firm. Divine mercy is a dimension of divine fidelity. In God’s absolute freedom God is still reliable – not capricious like the Greek gods of Olympus. The believer in all circumstances can depend on this.

In the New Testament aman is translated in the Greek by pisteuein to believe – which fundamentally means to depend on God – to place our trust, or in Latin ‘credo’ – to place our heart in him. In placing our trust there we find a firm place to stand – a dependable space from which to live. This is what Isaiah means when he says in 7:9 “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”

God’s life and the poor

All of this has clear social implications. The Old Testament message of mercy is a message of life, and is spelt out in the real world with social consequences. Despite sin and Fall God opens up life and a living space; the Promised Land is the sacrament of this. As the prophets say: God takes no delight in the death of the sinner and rejoices as we turn to life (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11). Jesus maps this out in his practice and again and again reiterates: “God is not a God of the dead but of the living,” (Mark 12:27; Matthew 22:32; Luke 29:38).

So the divine mercy is an energy that sustains, protects, builds up, and creates new life. It breaks out of narrow human models of judgement and punishment with their connotations of limiting freedom. Mercy is God’s primary option for life – the exact opposite of Nietzsche’s God – who is the enemy of life.[2] Rather God is the source of life (Psalm 37:10) and of life’s friend (Wisdom 11:26).

And this divine desire to enliven us finds its preferential focus on the weak and the poor. Always here is the echo of the migrant workers in Egypt (Exodus 22:10; Deuteronomy 10:19; 24:22). Their liberation by God is an abiding reality to be renewed in the land where no-one is to be oppressed or exploited – especially foreigners, widows or orphans (Exodus 22: 20-22). The powerful (the Law and Court) must protect them – those who are weak and the powerless people (Exodus 23:6-8). This is why usury is such a great sin (Exodus 22: 24-26)

All this is celebrated in Hannah’s song of thanksgiving for her son Samuel anticipating its full expression in Mary’s Magnificat:

He raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash-heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.” (1 Samuel 2:8).

The Sabbath law (Exodus 20:9f; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:12f) allows all poor and foreigners to take breath and rest. And the Sabbath year – leaves the fields fallow to benefit the poor and all slaves are freed (Exodus 23:10). In this liberated, forgiven, people – freedom is to be granted to everyone (Leviticus 25:8ff) Ultimately, there should be neither poor nor marginalised (Deuteronomy 8:9). The original idea of the tithe – for strangers, orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 14:28f; 26:2) was a mechanism to make this real (unlike the vestiges of it in Jesus’ time).

Again and again in the prophets we hear the call to the people to live out of God’s mercy (Isaiah 54:7; 57: 16-19; 63:3 -64:11) The promise is made to the poor – not the powerful, and third Isaiah (61:1) proclaims the Messiah will be sent to the poor and the little ones to bring them good news. This is the opening theme and focus of Jesus’ first public teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.

This is not a human utopia but the revelation of God’s merciful saving will for all. Ultimately it is God’s promise which in every age the believer and the Church are called to realise in every way possible.

Mercy in the Psalms

Martin Luther referred to the book of Psalms as the “little Bible” that summarises and understands all that is taught in the whole Bible. The mercy of God is expressed above all in the poetry of the psalms:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Psalm 103:8; 145:8.)

In the Psalms the sinner calls out again and again: “Be gracious/merciful to me O Lord”. (4:1; 6:2 etc.). Especially in the Miserere Psalm 51:1 attributed to David after his adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and after the prophet Nathan has accused him in public:

“Have mercy on me, O God; according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”

In the face of divine mercy petitions turn to thanksgiving and praise: “Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (106:1; 107:1.)

Psalm 136 goes over the top and repeats the jubilant cry ”for his steadfast love endures forever” twenty-six times. Famously the book of Wisdom 15:1 restates and summarises all of this: “But you, our God, are kind and true, patient and ruling all things in mercy.”

The Divine Mercy in the Gospels

But by the time of Jesus the sense of solidarity of God’s people in the divine loving kindness had become radically undermined. Partly because of the client culture of the time, the economics of debt, and patronage of the Roman Empire.

The mass of the mainly agricultural workers, the “am ha’aretz”, the people of the soil, were impoverished. Increasing numbers, having lost access to the land, were wandering day labourers dependent on the large estates to hire them – hence the stories of the workers in the vineyard. This sense of fragmentation can be seen in Jesus’ parable. Those who have worked all day cannot cope with the merciful gesture of the owner, even though they know their companions will go hungry and homeless without the denarius. The solidarity of the people of God has become fragmented.

Not only were these vulnerable ones, in Hebrew the anawin, the poor of Yahweh, impoverished,  but they had become despised by the old landed elites e.g. the Sadducees and even by the new religious or spiritual elites, the Pharisees and the sectarians at Qumran, the Essenes. These little poor ones are the poor or destitute referred to in the Beatitudes.

In the gospel they are symbolised by the old couple Simeon and Anna who virtually live in the Temple and place all their trust in God. They alone, God’s poor, truly rejoice and see the significance of the child of Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:25-38). Though powerless and poor they are the ones to recognise the dawning of the age of God’s mercy in the coming of the Messiah.

So, in summary, the Hebrew Scriptures show a growing insight into and understanding of God expressed in the history of a chosen people. Through narrative/story, biography, poetry and song, we see God’s holy righteous wrath is channelled in creative mercy. God always creates opportunities among his wayward people, for conversion and repentance – metanoia – the opportunity to see anew. At the heart of this mercy is a focus on the rights of the poor and the marginalised – both among the people themselves and towards the foreign stranger of whatever land and religion who seeks asylum among them.

The early Christian thinker Marcion argued that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was a God of wrath and so, in the light of the revelation of the divine love in Christ, we should jettison the Old Testament. However in the song of Mary, the largest single text of a women in the New Testament, one of God’s poor, the mother of Jesus, weaves together the great prophetic themes of God’s mercy towards her people. In doing so she maps out the very divine mercy that will be the inspiration of her son’s life, words and deeds:

47 My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Luke 1:47-55 (ESV)

[1] Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, London: Penguin, 1985.

[2] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, London: Macmillan, 1924, 42-43.