Mercy in Scripture II: Compassionate Love

MotherThe second Old Testament word used to define mercy is rahamim.

If hesed is masculine in its imagery–full of appeals to the honor of a God who swears, as a heroic warrior in the Iliad might, by his own honor, to be faithful and merciful no matter how little he gets from us in return–then rahamim shows a decidedly maternal and feminine aspect of God’s mercy.

Indeed, its very root is rehem, which means “mother’s womb” and it denotes the heartbreaking (and often heartbroken) love of a mother for children. It is a love that will endure all and go on loving a child should all the world turn its back on him and should he turn his back on his mother.

Here, supremely is portrayed the completely gratuitous and unmerited mercy in the strongest feminine imagery of the Old Testament: imagery that conveys not merely an abstract idea but the most visceral feelings of tenderness, patience and understanding.

It is of this sort of mercy we read in Isaiah:

“Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you”

(Is. 49:15)

This indomitable and mysteriously powerful trait of motherhood breathes through various Old Testament images: salvation from dangers and enemies; forgiveness of sins, and most especially in God’s fixed intention to see Israel through to its ultimate Hope in the Day of the Lord, despite human infidelity: “I will heal their faithlessness, I will love them freely” (Hos. 14:5).

Michelangelo, Jesse_David_SolomonTo these basic concepts numerous other examples and images of mercy are added in both the Old and New Testament.

In Genesis 18:17-32, Omnipotence and Omniscience tells Abraham what it is going to do to Sodom and Abraham, instead of bowing to the inevitable as to the inevitable onslaught of a hurricane, decides to dicker with God, establishing a venerable Jewish form of pedagogy that suffuses the Old Testament.

Like Moses, David, the prophets, and the apostles who argued with Jesus, he tries to change God’s mind. He does not really succeed, for God’s mind is always mercy. Rather, he struggles through to the deeper revelation that God desires mercy and life for the righteous, and not mere mass retribution meted out indiscriminately on account of the wicked.

God’s mercy is not only revealed, it is kneaded into the character of Old Testament figures, again in very paradoxical ways. After Israel commits the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, God threatens to exterminate Israel on the spot (Exodus 32). Again, it would appear to be pointless to argue with the God of Universe when he speaks in such definite terms.

Adoration_of_the_Golden_CalfYet Moses does–precisely as God intended he should–and is made by God into an icon of intercessory mercy by his offer to take the punishment for Israel upon himself.

It is a gesture done in anticipation of the Only One who could really bear such a burden. And it is one of the great images of mercy in the Old Testament.

David too, demonstrates some aspects of mercy (and shows some of the ways in which Old Testament revelation still awaited completion by the New Testament).

We see, for example, that David mercifully awards with equal largesse soldiers who failed to carry as much of the burden of battle as others (1 Samuel 30:21-25).

Like the man in Jesus’ parable, David makes free with his own money, paying his workers the wage they agreed to and giving liberally to those whom he chooses (Matthew 20:1-16). Even more, however, during David’s reign, we find him extending mercy, not only to friends and allies, but even to various people standing opposed to him, some quite cruelly and in his darkest hour.

And so, for instance, he grants mercy to Joab for his murder of David’s foes against his orders. Further, he forgives Shimei for heaping scorn on his head when he was exiled from Jerusalem during the attempted coup by his son, Absalom.

However, David’s mercy is decidedly conditional and temporary. Once he is dead, he tells Solomon, see to it that Joab is rubbed out and find a way to kill Shimei (1 Kings 2:5-9). David understands more of mercy than most of his contemporaries. But he is still all too fallen.

This last point is important. For Old Testament revelation of mercy is incomplete and is only fully understood in light of the New Covenant in which God, who is “rich in mercy” became incarnate and died for us, pleading for mercy toward the very men who condemned him to death.

Moses’ merciful self-offering prefigures the self-offering of the Incarnate God. But only the Incarnate God can really make the self-offering for our sins because only He is both God and man. When he does, mercy is fully revealed and eloquently summed up by his apostle, Paul:

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man-though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
(Romans 5:6-8)

This is the ultimate act of mercy from him who is Mercy Incarnate. It is the object toward which all biblical revelation of mercy points and the source from which all biblical revelation of mercy springs. Jesus is the mercy of God.


Read the previous Mercy in Scripture I: Faithful Love

MMercy Worksark P. Shea is CTS author and guest blogger. He wrote Mercy Works, one of many CTS Mercy titles.

Scriptures of Mercy



Pope Francis calls us to return to the Scriptures and to divine mercy. Our June title, Scriptures of Mercy, will help us to explore the conception that God in the Old Testament is an unforgiving judge.

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