God’s Parental Compassion

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,
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).

Genesis 49:25, WEB

Yahweh, remember your tender mercies (rachum) and your loving kindness,
for they are from old times.

Psalm 25:6, WEB

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,
that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Yes, these may forget,
yet I will not forget you!

Isaiah 49:15, WEB

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,
so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him.

Psalm 103:13, WEB

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,
because his compassion doesn’t fail.
They are new every morning.
Great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23, WEB

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.

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Jesus: The Mercy Seat and Atonement Sacrifice

I love how dynamic the Bible is. Read a verse you’ve studied dozens of times, and suddenly a slightly different translation or an idea you had last month snaps into clarity and you see a deeper, fuller layer of God’s truth. I like to think that’s the holy spirit working, aligning our thoughts and ideas more closely with God so we can understand the things given to us by God.

The verse to most recently strike me in this way was the NET translation of Romans 3:25. I quoted it in last week’s post. Here, Paul says of Jesus that “God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith.” In the KJV, this was translated as “whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” Both translations are profound, but seeing that connection to the mercy seat (which is an accurate translation of G2435, hilasterion, and is also used in Heb. 9:5) made me think about the idea in this verse more deeply.

“Mercy seat” is one of those things in the New Testament that wouldn’t make any sense at all without context from the Old Testament. Reading either testament in isolation would mean you only get a partial picture of God’s story and plan. It’s all one book, and nowhere is that more visible than when looking at how key aspects of the Old Testament law and worship point straight to Jesus Christ.

Context for the Mercy Seat

The mercy seat was the top part of the ark of the covenant. It is the location where the incense and the blood of the yearly Yom Kippor (Day of Atonement) sacrifice were placed (Lev. 16:11-17) and the place that God’s presence appeared when He met with His people (Ex. 30:6; Num. 7:89). In the Old Testament, the NET uses the translation “atonement lid” for the Hebrew word kapporet to represent that this ornate “lid” for the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:10-22) is the location where atonement is made and accepted (NET footnote). When there was a tabernacle or temple, the atonement lid/mercy seat was located inside the most holy place (also called the inner sanctuary or holy of holies). A heavy curtain or veil separated this inner sanctuary from view; only the high priest could enter and only once a year.

That background helps us understand what the New Testament writers tell us about Jesus’s death. When Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, and Luke 23:45 say “the temple curtain was torn in two” when Jesus died, they most likely mean the curtain that separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple. Jesus’s death ripped open the separation between God and man. We’re not removed from the place where God appears or the location where atonement is made anymore. On their own, human beings had never been holy or pure enough to be in God’s presence, but now through the blood of Jesus which washes our sins away we can access the holiest places in the heavens.

One Sacrifice in the Heavenly Sanctuary

As we’ve seen, even though the Greek word translated “mercy seat” only shows up twice in the New Testament, the concept plays a much bigger role than it might seem at first. When Paul calls Jesus “the mercy seat accessible through faith,” it’s in the context of God’s righteousness (which “is attested by the law and the prophets”) being even more fully demonstrated in Jesus and the New Covenant than it was in the Old Covenant law (Rom. 3:19-26). There’s a “passing over” of sins that is connected with sacrifice, and the “mercy seat” is the “place or object” where that propitiation/atonement happens (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 1023, kapportet).

The author of Hebrews expands on this sacrifice even more. As part of a lengthy discussion of Jesus’s priesthood (which takes up most of the book), this writer says one of the reasons that Jesus “shared in” our “humanity” was “so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:14-17, NET). Remember, for Jewish readers (and probably non-Jewish converts in that society as well) the idea of atonement was linked to Yom Kippur and the sacrifice for that day where the high priest offered blood and incense at the mercy seat. Unlike the Old Covenant Levitical priests, Jesus “has no need” to offer daily or even yearly sacrifices (Heb. 7:23-28; 10:10-14). His New Covenant priesthood operates on a heavenly level.

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with hands—the representation of the true sanctuary—but into heaven itself, and he appears now in God’s presence for us. And he did not enter to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the sanctuary year after year with blood that is not his own, for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the consummation of the ages to put away sin by his sacrifice.

Hebrews 9:24-26, NET

The holy places, priesthood, worship, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant all pointed to this: Jesus the High Priest entering the heavenly sanctuary with His own blood to put away sin from all who will accept what He does on their behalf. The importance of Jesus’s sacrifice is something that all Christians, whatever their background or denomination, are intimately familiar with. The more we learn about the rich history of worship and covenants that frame His sacrifice, though, the more fully we can understand and appreciate what Jesus did. And it also deepens our understanding of what He is currently doing–His priesthood has no expiration date. He is still, right this very moment, acting as the “mercy seat” and High Priest in the heavenly temple whose atonement sacrifice removes all our sins by substituting Himself in our place.

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What Happens When God Takes Justice to the Next Level?

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus talks about commands given to ancient Israel and then gives new guidelines for how to obey God from a heart level. He wants us to shine as lights in the world so that all “can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16, NET).

As preface to taking the commands to a spiritual level, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17, NET). In other words, He has come “to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God’s promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfillment” (Thayer’s dictionary entry on G4137, pleroo). And lest anyone think that the new covenant Jesus brings will make obedience any less of a priority, he adds, “unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matt. 5:20, NET).

We must have a righteousness that “goes beyond” the letter of the law. It’s no longer enough to not murder; Jesus expects us not to despise or condemn others as well (Matt. 5:21-22). Not cheating on our spouses isn’t enough; we’re not even to lust after someone who doesn’t belong to us (Matt. 5:27-28). God has always cared more about the state of the human heart than what we do, and now that desire for heart and spirit-level obedience is made even more explicit. We might even say that what Jesus reveals demands a higher degree of commitment to God than what He expected under the Old Covenant.

A Life for a Life

One of the commands Jesus talks about is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt 5:38, WEB). This alludes to three passages in the Torah (according to the reference list in MySword Bible app): Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21.

The rest of the people will hear and become afraid to keep doing such evil among you. You must not show pity; the principle will be a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot.

Deuteronomy 19:2-21, NET

The NET footnote on this verse says, “This kind of justice is commonly called lex talionis or ‘measure for measure’… It is likely that it is the principle that is important and not always a strict application. That is, the punishment should fit the crime and it may do so by the payment of fines or other suitable and equitable compensation.” This interpretation may well be true, and perhaps Jesus had this in mind when He mentioned this law in His sermon. Maybe people had begun applying it too strictly and missed the heart of God for fairness and justice.

Jesus does not, however, tell people they need to keep applying this law but in a slightly different way. For the other “you have heard … but I say to you” passages, Jesus reinforces keeping the law and makes it more broadly applicable while taking it to a heart level. For example, “Do not break an oath” becomes “do not take oaths at all” (Matt. 5:33-37). This time, though, the exact connection to a broader spiritual application isn’t so direct.

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Mercy over Judgement

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42, NET, quoting Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20.

In the past, God’s law let you exact equal retribution for a crime. Someone knocks your tooth out, they lose their tooth. God is a God of justice and judgement, and every time there is sin someone has to pay for it. One thing implied by that rule of justice is that when you transgress the law you will also be punished. That’s where we start to realize how much we need God to also be a God of mercy, and indeed He is.

For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law. Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2:10-13, NET , quoting Exodus 20:13-14

God wants to show us mercy. He delights in seeing it triumph over judgement. But if we want God to show us mercy, we must also show mercy when we have that opportunity. When someone hits you you don’t hit them back; you turn the other cheek, turn vengeance over to God, and live at peace with everyone you can (Rom. 12:17-21).

Mimicking Jesus’s Mercy

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It is worth noting that when Jesus says, “resist not an evil doer,” the Greek word is anthistemi (G436). The only positive case of it being used between people is when Paul stood up to Peter’s hypocrisy in shunning Gentile believers (Gal. 2:11-17). It is also used when we’re told to “resist the devil” (James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8-9) and to “withstand in the evil day” wearing God’s armor (Eph. 6:13). The command in the Sermon on the Mount does not mean we can’t correct someone in the spirit of love when they’ve made an error or that we do not resist the power behind all evil. We are, however, to commit ourselves to showing mercy and letting go of the option to revenge ourselves on someone else.

When God takes justice and fairness to the next level, it turns into mercy, long-suffering, peace, and love. The principle of “a life for a life” finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ dying to free us from all the things we’ve done that deserve death. He gave His life to redirect the “compensation due sin,” which “is death” (Rom. 6:23, LEB), to Himself even though He did not deserve to suffer and die.

Our human nature might rise up against this “turn the other cheek” passage and say that it isn’t fair to let others get away with these sorts of things. But it also was not “fair” that Jesus died instead of us to pay the penalty for our sin. His mercy triumphed over judgement, and if we follow Him in spirit and in truth our mercy should also triumph over judgement.

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The Beatitudes, Part Five: Blessed Are The Merciful

I recently read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson, shortly after watching the film adaptation (both are excellent, by the way; I highly recommend reading and watching). Mercy and justice are tricky things for us humans to balance. We don’t have perfect perspective on every situation. We don’t know all the relevant facts. We want justice but we often mishandle it badly. And for some reason, it’s often hard to show mercy or to convince others it’s a good idea.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7, all quotes from WEB translation)

We all need mercy, particularly from God. We also all need to give mercy, otherwise we won’t receive any. It’s the same principle as forgiveness. As Jesus says just a little later in the same sermon where He gives us the Beatitudes,

“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15)

Reciprocal Mercy

The relation between the character trait and how God rewards it is very direct in this particular Beatitude. You give mercy, you get mercy. And it’s not just about passively letting mercy happen or giving it only when absolutely necessary. The Greek word eleemon (G1655) is “active compassion and benevolence involving thought and action.” It is an expression of the love inside you, and it’s closely related to other words like elos (G1656, applied grace, pity, compassion) and eleemosune (G1654, actions of mercy) (Zodhiates’ dictionary). Here’s the only other place this specific form of the word for “mercy” is used in scripture:

Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)

We’re to have the same kind of mercy that Jesus has as a result of His life here on earth as a human being. He learned what it’s like to be human and that gave Him an even deeper compassion for us than God had before (which was already bountiful).

It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23)

Yahweh is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and of great loving kindness. Yahweh is good to all. His tender mercies are over all his works. (Ps. 145:8-9)

Don’t Miss The Point

Mercy is something Jesus was looking for, and which He taught, while on this earth. One of the things He taught was that faith which refuses to show mercy is empty and dead. For example, when the Pharisees berated him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said,

“Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Matt. 9:12-13)

He was quoting Hosea 6:6, no doubt a very familiar verse to the religious leaders and experts of His day, and telling them they didn’t understand what it means. At least a few of them probably had all of Hosea memorized, and here’s this young rabbi from Nazareth (of all places) telling them they’re missing the point of this scripture. It’s no wonder the Pharisees were offended, nor is it any wonder so many of the people they’d treated without mercy responded with joy to Jesus’s message. Jesus was boldly proclaiming the mercy which has always been a part of God’s plan, and He made very clear that this mercy did not belong only to an elite group. It is for all His people.

To Ransom With Mercy

If you are reading this the weekend it posted, we just observed Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) less than a week ago. This solemn, holy day represents God’s covering mercy. A more direct translation of the Hebrew words kippur and kaphar might be “to cover (G3722, Strong’s dictionary; Brown, Driver, and Briggs lexicon). However, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament challenges that interpretation and instead links atonement, ransom, and the mercy seat. This word family is about reconciliation made possible by the removal of sins rather than by covering them over (TWOT entry 1023).

On Yom Kippur, the Old Testament priest made a special sacrifice and sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat — the place of atonement/propitiation (TWOT 1023c). Sacrifice in this situation, as well as in the more general sense, “was the symbolic expression of an innocent life given for a guilty life” (TWOT 1023a). This concept gains even more meaning in the New Covenant observance of Yom Kippur because Jesus the Messiah is the innocent life given in ransom for our guilty lives.

So what does this have to do with the Beatitudes? Everything. To receive this sort of mercy, we have to show this sort of mercy. it is an imperative. God makes the first move — Jesus has already died for us and grace in Him is given freely, not earned by anything we do. But if we do not respond to His gift by showing mercy, He can take back His mercy (Matt. 18:21-35).

What Mercy Looks Like

Jesus told a parable about a man who owed his lord an impossible debt (about 300 metric tons of silver) and was forgiven everything he owed. That man went to one of the other servants who owed him a very small amount (about 500 grams of silver) and refused offer forgiveness. He didn’t even respond to that man’s pleas for patience in repaying the debt. At the end of the parable, the lord says, “Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:33).

If we want to know what mercy looks like, we need only look to God. How has He been merciful to you? Go and treat other people that way. Show mercy, as the good Samaritan did (Luke 10:25-37). And to it with cheerfulness, not out of grudging necessity (Rom. 12:8). Present yourself a living sacrifice to do God’s will, remembering His great mercy toward you (Rom. 12:1). Be tender and compassionate to your brethren (Phil. 2:1-2).

It seems so simplistic to say that God just wants us to love each other and treat each other with compassion and mercy. But that is what He wants. It’s not too much to ask, and the more we become like Him the easier it will be to respond with love and mercy to everyone around us.

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Mercies from Yahweh of Armies

Work, work your thoughts and therein see a king at war who holds those guilty that defy him. Behold him facing a besieged town, shouting out all the terrors that await those who persist in defiance, yet offering mercy if only they will yield to his authority. Note his relief when one chooses mercy, his gentleness with those who trust him and his swift vengeance on those who persist in rebellion.

I borrow this scene from my favorite Shakespeare play, Henry V (Act 3, prologue, Scene 2). But it’s also a Biblical image. We sometimes lose sight in the modern world that the KJV phrase “Lord of hosts” literally means “Yahweh of Armies.” One of the most often used titles of God is about Him personally going forth with a host of armies organized for war.

This is a comforting image when God is fighting against our enemies. But sometimes, “Yahweh’s anger burns against his people,” particularly when “they have rejected the law of Yahweh of Armies and despised the Holy One of Israel” (Is. 5:24-25). Even when that happens, though, God deeply desires to show mercy. His justice demands punishment for sin (Heb. 10:30-31), but His mercy offers a path to forgiveness and salvation (1 Pet. 2:24-25).

It’s common in modern churches to say that God was vengeful and frightening in the Old Testament but is gentle and loving in the New. Such a disconnect is not supported by scripture. Both the Father and the Word (who we now know as Jesus) have been active throughout history. They’re unchanging. In order to have a fuller, more accurate vision of who God is and what He is doing, we need to acknowledge that He is both wrathful justice and gentle mercies.

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God’s Desire to Forgive

After the death of righteous Josiah, king of Judah, his son Jehohaz reigned for just 3 months before an Egyptian king dethroned him and set up his brother Jehoiakim in his place. This new king “did that which was evil in Yahweh his God’s sight” (2 Chr. 35:25-36:8). At this time, God was actively working through the prophet Jeremiah, and He sent him with a message.

In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from Yahweh, saying, “Take a scroll of a book, and write in it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I intend to do to them; that they may each return from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” (Jer. 36:1-3, all verses quoted from WEB translation unless otherwise noted)

Jeremiah’s prophecies contain warnings, corrections, lessons, and promises. From God’s words here in the passage I just quoted, it seems one of His main goals in sharing all those warnings was to save people from the consequences of their own disobedience.

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Justice Belongs To God

One of the things we discussed in last week’s post about a Christian’s role in seeing justice done was that there are very few situations where God says it’s okay for us to judge other people. There’s an important reason for that which we only just touched on last week. It’s that justice and the application of judgement belong to God. We are to become like Him, yes, but there are certain roles that He does not share with us, at least not yet.

Paul says that one day the saints will judge the world and even angels. We’re not there yet, though there are certain situations where we can practice such as settling disputes in the church or discerning when there’s a sin being committed (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11-13; 6:1-3). We’re not entrusted with final judgement, though, nor with the execution of justice or vengeance. In fact, we’re instructed to step aside and let God handle it whenever we’re tempted to take any vengeful action.

Judged by the Word of God

Back in Deuteronomy, Moses told Israel not to show partiality in judgement or be afraid of judging fairly (no matter what other people think) “for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17 all scriptures from the WEB translation). Judgement belongs to God, and He cares a great deal about seeing justice done properly. That’s one of the main reasons “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality. You shall not take a bribe” (Deut. 16:19). Of course, these instructions were given to handle legal disputes in a nation where God’s law was the standard of government. We now live in nations with secular law systems and most of us aren’t involved in that. But the principles still apply. God cares about justice done rightly, and His definition of “rightly” might not always match with our human impulses. Read more