I started studying compassion this week and discovered something that seemed a bit odd at first. There are two main Hebrew words translated “compassion” in the Bible, and one of them is also translated “womb.” For example, these two verses use the exact same word:
even by the God of your father, who will help you,Genesis 49:25, WEB
by the Almighty, who will bless you,
with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that lies below,
blessings of the breasts, and of the womb (rachum).
Yahweh, remember your tender mercies (rachum) and your loving kindness,Psalm 25:6, WEB
for they are from old times.
To English speakers, “womb” and “compassion” are entirely different words. We might associate compassion with feminine traits, but other than that there’s not much connection. In Hebrew, though, this word describes love you feel deep in your guts. Racham (H7356), along with closely related words like raham (H7355) and rachum (H7349), are all part of the same word-family (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT] 2146). They refer “to deep love (usually of a ‘superior’ for and ‘inferior’).” It’s the sort of love/mercy/pity/compassion that people feel for each other because “they are human beings (Jer 50:42) and which is most easily prompted by small babies (Isa 13:18) or other helpless people” (TWOT).
Love for the Little Ones
Racham and related words are only rarely used “of men” (TWOT), though it does describe the type of love that a mother has for her children (1 Kings 3:26). Far more often, this word is used to describe how God feels, particularly as a parent toward people who owe their birth to Him (Is. 46:3-4). That’s all of humanity, really–He’s our Creator even if we’re not yet in a parent-child relationship with Him. He sees us as children who belong to Him.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,Isaiah 49:15, WEB
that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Yes, these may forget,
yet I will not forget you!
God feels towards us the way a good mother feels towards her children. Even though God always presents Himself as male, women are also made in His image and many traits that we think of as “feminine” are traits of God. His love is perfect and far surpasses even the best parents.
Like a father has compassion on his children,Psalm 103:13, WEB
so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.
Note that in this verse, the Psalmist specifies that “Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.” It’s similar to how we’ve talked in the past about different types of love that God has for people. Though He has agape for everyone–benevolent love that always seeks good things/outcomes for the people loved– He only has phileo–familial affection based on shared interests–with those who’ve responded to His invitation to enter a relationship with Him (see “Not All God’s Love Is Unconditional: How To Become A Friend Of God”). We’re all little children in God’s eyes and, for those of us in relationship with Him, we’re recipients of a special, familial love that invovles reliable compassion and mercy.
Love that We Can Count On
One of the things that makes God’s love so precious is that we can count on it never to fail. His compassion and mercy aren’t going anywhere and we have abundant evidence in the Bible (and often from our own lives as well) that this is true. He even considers this character trait part of His name (Ex. 33:19; 34:6; Deut 4:31). One example of His rachum can be found in God holding Himself back from destroying ancient Israel no matter how many times they betrayed and forsook Him (Neh. 9:17-19, 27-31). There’s even more evidence in the Psalms, where the writers speak of God’s mercy, recall times when He had compassion on them, and ask for more mercy when they miss the mark (here’s a link to Psalms with rachem words).
It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed,Lamentations 3:22-23, WEB
because his compassion doesn’t fail.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.
This is still true for us today. Already, we’re the people Hosea prophesied of “who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (Hos. 2:23; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). And if we’re in distress, even if we’ve done something He tells us is wrong, we can count on Yahweh’s great mercies (2 Sam. 24:13-14; Ps. 51:1). That’s a promise backed-up by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who came to earth bringing the most incredible proof of our Father’s deep mercy and compassion (Luke 1.76-79; Eph. 2:4-6; Tit 3.4-7).
Just like a little child can trust in a good, responsible mother or father, so we can trust in God. In fact, we must be like little children if we want to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 8:2-4). The more we grow to see Him as our Father and ourselves as completely dependent on Him, the more easily His compassion and mercy flows toward us.
Featured image by Shaun Menary from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin