In a roundabout, had-to-be-Spirit-led way, God has me pondering words again. This time he caught my surprise when I read Psalm 4:1. Just eight small verses, yet somehow they are capturing my interest this week:
1 Answer me when I call to you,
O God who declares me innocent.
Free me from my troubles.
Have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
8 In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.
I began thinking about what it means for God to have mercy on us. What is mercy, really? The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines it this way: Mercy is compassion shown especially to an offender; it can also mean a blessing or divine favor. Mercy implies compassion that abstains from punishment even when justice demands it. Another meaning is compassionate treatment on those who are in distress.
The Bible uses several different words that are translated as mercy in English. Let’s dig in and see what treasures the Lord has for us today as we learn more about mercy in God’s plan for us.
In Genesis 19, we see a big picture of God’s mercy towards Lot in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The angels came to the city to warn Lot and remove him and his family to safety. Abraham had asked the Lord to spare him, and spare him is exactly what the Lord did.
16 When Lot still hesitated, the angels seized his hand and the hands of his wife and two daughters and rushed them to safety outside the city, for the Lord was merciful.
The Hebrew word for merciful is chemla, from chamal, which literally means “to spare.” So one way God shows us his mercy is by sparing us. What is the Lord sparing you from today? He spared Lot from the utter destruction that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Another use of the word mercy is found in the same story. The angels want Lot to go to the mountains, but for some reason he thinks they would be the death of him. So he asks them:
“You have been so gracious to me and saved my life, and you have shown such great kindness. But I cannot go to the mountains. Disaster would catch up to me there, and I would soon die. “
The word we read as kindness in English is the word checed in Hebrew. It means mercy, kindness, favor, or good deed.
But mercy doesn’t just mean to spare or show kindness. The Hebrew words racham and the related word racham(with an accent over the first a) wraps up an entire connotation of intense love — specifically, the love a mother has for her child that is still in the womb. It’s a tender love that shows compassion. With that in mind, look at these verses from Isaiah 49:
9 I will say to the prisoners, ‘Come out in freedom,’
and to those in darkness, ‘Come into the light.’
They will be my sheep, grazing in green pastures
and on hills that were previously bare.
10 They will neither hunger nor thirst.
The searing sun will not reach them anymore.
For the Lord in his mercy will lead them;
he will lead them beside cool waters.
11 And I will make my mountains into level paths for them.
The highways will be raised above the valleys.
12 See, my people will return from far away,
from lands to the north and west,
and from as far south as Egypt.
Wow. I am nearly speechless with emotion at the thought of this kind of tender mercy the Lord has for us…that the Lord has for me! And then look at this treasure from Isaiah 54:
10 For the mountains may move
and the hills disappear,
but even then my faithful love for you will remain.
My covenant of blessing will never be broken,”
says the Lord, who has mercy on you.
It is hard to get my mind to wrap around the BIGNESS of the love that is expressed in racham — mercy.
So far I’ve learned that God spares me (from the destruction I deserve). He shows me kindness. And this kind of mercy, the racham kind of mercy, means that He cherishes and loves me with the same kind of love and compassion (and, shall I say expectation?) that I felt for my child as she was growing in my womb.
But there is another meaning for mercy. Remember Psalm 4 I quoted earlier? David asks God to “have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” Mercy in this case is the Hebrew word chanan, which means to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior, or to favor or bestow.
So now we get a picture of mercy as our God bending low to us, stooping down to our level to show us kindness. I know who I see in my mind’s eye — the Lord Jesus, taking on the form of a servant even though he was one with God! I see Him stooping down, washing his disciples feet. I see him mercifully scooping me up when I fall down and make yet another mistake.
Speaking of Jesus, the New Testament is also full of references to mercy. We encounter the Greek word eleeo in Matthew 5:
7 God blesses those who are merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Mercy in this case means to be compassionate by word or deed. It also means by divine grace. So…God blesses those who are compassionate by their words and their deeds. Moving along in Matthew, I see that showing mercy is something that the Lord specifically calls us to do. Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple. But Matthew was a tax collector — someone the Jews considered to be scum-of-the-earth. They would never consider associating themselves with “tax collectors.” I imagine they whispered the words, not wanting to dirty themselves with speaking even the words “tax collector.” Sort of like we might whisper “look at that prostitute” or “that guy is just a crackhead.” So they were extremely taken aback when Jesus had dinner with Matthew and other “disreputable sinners.” Would there be consternation in your house if you brought home a transient to dinner tonight?
After Jesus called Matthew to be his disciple, here’s what happened:
10 Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?[d]”
12 When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” 13 Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’[Hosea 6:6] For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
The word Jesus used in this case is eleos, and it has a special meaning to me. It doesn’t just mean compassion and tender mercy — it is an active tense. It means showing active compassion and tenderness. In Hosea 6:6, God said he didn’t want our sacrifices — he wanted us to show love, to show mercy. Jesus said that he didn’t come for those who are healthy, but for those who need a doctor. I don’t know about you, but I sure need His kind of healing to take away my ‘holier than thou’ attitude at times!
The Pharisees were not showing love at all when they wondered why Jesus would eat with “scum.” They were also in need of a doctor, but they were so full of themselves that they didn’t realize their own sin. But is that much different from the way we behave? Seriously, if you were at a McDonald’s with your kids and an odiferous homeless person slid right next to you on the bench and struck up a conversation, what would be your reaction? Would you sit and chat, ask him about his faith? Find out what he needed? Or would you tell your kids that they could finish eating in the car and hightail it out of there? Or sit there and talk while carrying on an internal, fearful conversation with yourself about the safety of what you were doing? What would be mine?
To wrap up today’s musings about mercy, let’s look in the book of James. James 2:13 mentions mercy several times using different Greek words. James writes about the danger of playing favorites — giving the “best” seats to the well-dressed and making the poor sit on the floor (ever been to a restaurant like that?).
5 Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? 6 But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? 7 Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name[c] you bear?
8 Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[d] 9 But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.
10 For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. 11 For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.”[e] So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law.
12 So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. 13 There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.
The first mercy we see in verse 13 is from the Greek word anileos. It is the negative of the Greek hileos, which means propitious, cheerful, or God be gracious in averting calamity. So we see that God will NOT be gracious in averting calamity for those who have not shown mercy to others. What kind of mercy? The second word for mercy is that active word again — eleos, which means actively showing compassion.
I like the joyous connotation in the NIV translation for verse 13:
13because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!
When we are actively merciful, we triumph over judgement! God WILL be gracious in averting calamity (ie, the judgement we deserve) when we ourselves show mercy to others.
What does that mean to you? Do you have any ideas on how to show eleos (active mercy) to those the Lord brings into your life?
I remember one day at McDonald’s a homeless person sat down with a cup of water across from us. I bought him a hamburger and gave it to him, but inside my heart was pounding and my mind was racing. What if he had a disease? Or what if he was a lunatic about to pounce on me and Cadi? He didn’t seem interested in talking, so I quickly gave him the burger and scooted out the door. On this side of heaven I’ll never know what that man thought about me giving him a hamburger. I cringe to think of what God thought about my thoughts. But in his great mercy, he protected us as we showed mercy. God is just like that, isn’t he?
My prayer this week will be that my eyes and yours will be opened to those around us who are on the fringes of our society…that we will see them as real people with real souls who the Lord desperately loves as a mother loves her unborn child. He just might use us to show them racham — cherishing, tender love.