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)
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). Read more →
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.
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.
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 →
In his epistle, James describes “the wisdom that is from above” as “first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17, WEB). We’ve looked at those first four traits in previous posts, and now we come to study merciful wisdom.
Mercy, loving kindness, and compassion are key traits of our God, who is the source of true wisdom. (Language note: the Hebrew and Greek words translated “mercy” are also frequently translated as “kindness,” or more rarely a related word such as compassion or goodness.) If we want to be like God, then we also need to learn kindness and mercy. And we must use them wisely, as He does.
Consider the Loving Kindness
The end of Psalm 107 says, “Whoever is wise will pay attention to these things. They will consider the loving kindnesses of Yahweh” (Ps. 107; 43, WEB). Since we’re studying wisdom and loving kindness/mercy, this psalm seems like a good place to start.
Psalm 107 begins, “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.” A similar phrase echoes throughout the Psalm: “Let them praise Yahweh for his loving kindness, for his wonderful deeds to the children of men!” (Ps. 107:8, 15, 21, 31). In between, we’re given reasons for this praise and illustrations of the Lord’s loving kindness. Read more →
Mercy is an outward action. We can see this clearly when we think of how God shows mercy to us. He pours out mercy on us though we’ve done nothing to deserve His forgiveness and compassion. Jesus died for us. The Father provides for us. They alleviate the consequences of our sins. Their mercy is active and changes things in the lives of people who come to Them for help and relationship.
What about our mercy? I think sometimes we expect God’s mercy to be active yet think it’s okay for ours to be more passive. We mercifully forgive others on the inside (mostly) and don’t take action against them, so that’s good enough. We feel compassion for those in distress, and that’s a kind of mercy, right? We don’t really have to do any merciful acts to be considered merciful, do we? After all, God’s more concerned with what’s inside us than what we’re actually doing.
While God does look on our hearts, if our hearts are in the right place that should motivate us to take certain actions, including deeds of righteousness and mercy. Belief, repentance, and salvation are only the first steps in our walks with God. We’re to enter covenant with Him and start becoming like him. An integral part of this is learning to be merciful as God is merciful.
Mercy Starts With God
In Greek, the type of mercy we’re discussing is elos (G1656). There are other words for feelings of pity or compassion. Elos involves acting on those feelings. Spiros Zodhiates explains it in contrast to “charis (5485) which is God’s free grace and gift displayed in the forgiveness of sins as offered to men in their guilt. God’s mercy (elos) is extended for the alleviation of the consequences of sin.” Mercy is applied grace. It is passing over deserved punishment. It is reaching out to relieve suffering. It is active loving kindness, corresponding to the Hebrew word chesed which we talked about last week.
But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-6, WEB)
God’s mercy prompts Him to take life-changing, life-saving action. We can’t apply mercy at the same level God does, but we need to learn how to be merciful in the same way that He is.
A Word for Mercy in Action
The word eleemosune (G1654) refers to actions of mercy. It’s the things we do when motivated by elos. The King James Version translated it “alms” and the concept has come to mean charitable giving in much the same way that the Hebrew word for righteousness, tzedakah, is equated with righteous giving. Originally, though, it was not just about giving money although that was definitely included.
This word is used to describe Tabitha’s “acts of mercy” and Cornelius’ “gifts to the needy” that have “gone up for a memorial before God” (Acts 9:36; 10:4, WEB). Also in Acts, Luke records the story of a lame man who sat in the door of the temple each day “to ask gifts for the needy,” or “alms” (Acts 3:2). When Peter saw this he said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have, that I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!” (v. 6). Peter didn’t have money but he still gave a gift of mercy.
Another example of mercy in action is found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. You can read it in Luke 10:25-37. A lawyer asked Jesus who qualified as his neighbor for the command “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus answered by telling the story of a Jewish man who was left for dead by robbers. A priest and a Levite passed him by, “but a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion” and helped the man. When Jesus asked this lawyer which of the three who encountered the injured man “‘seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'”
So speak and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13, WEB)
God wants to show mercy and we should too. We should delight in loving kindness, as He does (Jer. 9:24). Twice in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks out against those who don’t understand what it means when God says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). His Jewish audience would have known He was quoting Hosea, where God laments Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant (Hos. 6:1-7).
God is not satisfied with obedience only when we feel like giving it or only in the areas we want to surrender to Him. He wants an ongoing, heart-transforming relationship with us as we seek to become more like Him and embrace our Godly identity. And that includes desiring and showing mercy.
The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18, WEB)
This is a partial description of how God’s personality, character, and mind work, which means it’s also a list of character traits we should develop as people who follow him. And it includes being “full of mercy.” Let us be wise, godly people who learn to actively show mercy through our actions as well as by having feelings of compassion.
“I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.
I quoted this scripture from Jeremiah 9:24 in last week’s post and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. God defines Himself by using these three concepts and says He delights in them. If they’re that important to Him, then they should be important to us.
I feel like we talk fairly often about the fact that God balances justice/judgement and mercy/loving kindness. But sometime we’re puzzled about how exactly that works. Back in Medieval times, theologians wondered how a God of judgement and justice could also be one of mercy. Now we ask how a God of love and mercy could also be one of judgement. I think taking God’s characteristic righteousness into account — as well as studying the Hebrew word meanings — can help answer those questions.
We in the Christian churches today often start with the New Testament when trying to understand a concept. It can be useful, though, to start with the Old Testament because that’s the foundation the New Testament writers built on. In Hebrew, words for justice, judgement, government, and ordinances are all interconnected in the root word shapat (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2443).
We tend to think of judgement/justice as a judicial concept. In Hebrew thought, though, the functions of government were’t divided as we so often do today. The primary meaning “of shapat is to exercise the process of government” in any realm or any form.
When the Bible speaks of God’s judgement or justice it’s also referencing all aspects of His government, not simply judicial laws. To quote TWOT again, “although the ancients knew full well what law … was, they did not think of themselves as ruled by laws rather than by men … The centering of the law, rulership, government in a man was deeply ingrained.” Apply that concept to God, and the notion of justice has to do with Him as the center of true law, rulership, and government. He is the source of real authority and has the absolute right to rule as He chooses.