WHAT IS MERCY?
The Hebrew word for mercy is “rachamim.” It comes from “racham,” which means to love tenderly, to pity, to sympathize with, and to have compassion on. Mercy includes showing kindness to those who don’t deserve it, and forgiving those that deserve punishment.
MERCY IS GOD’S NATURE
Mercy is God’s nature as it confronts human suffering and guilt. It is human misery and sin that reveal God’s mercy. If it wasn’t for human suffering God’s mercy might have remained hidden in His heart, unknown to other intelligences. God would still be merciful even if there were no guilt, no pain, no tears, and no suffering. Because He is merciful the Almighty is naturally disposed to be kind to those who are in misery or distress, no matter how undeserving they may be. The tendency of His nature is to relieve the suffering caused by man’s sin, which has caused us to be in a pathetic, pitiful situation. Because His nature is one of mercy, the God of the Bible feels our sorrows, sympathizes with our pains, and has pity for the terrible circumstances we find ourselves in. He is completely free from any cruelty or meanness toward us. Because He is merciful, God forgives us when we repent, although we don’t deserve it, and withholds the punishment that we merit. God is therefore by His nature disposed to forgive man’s rebelliousness.
God’s mercy is not a temporary mood that can change, but an attribute of God’s eternal being. Since it comes from within His eternal nature, God’s mercy is infinite and inexhaustible. God’s mercy never began to be – it always was. It will never cease to be. It can never be more since it is infinite. It can never be less because the infinite cannot suffer lessening. Nothing that has occurred or will occur in heaven, on earth, or in sheol can ever change the tender mercies of our God. His mercy will always exist, boundless, overwhelming, an immensity of divine pity and tenderest compassion.
THE THIRTEEN ATTRIBUTES
Perhaps the greatest description of God’s mercy is known in Jewish theology as the “Thirteen Attributes.” The Torah records that Moses had been interceding for the Jewish people after the golden calf debacle. Moses went up Mount Sinai and the Lord passed by and proclaimed the Thirteen Attributes (Exodus 34:6-7):
1 & 2. The Lord, the Lord
3. God [the all-mighty Lord of the universe, the Supreme Ruler over all of creation and over mankind],
4. merciful [“rachum” – full of affectionate sympathy for the sufferings and miseries of humanity],
5. and gracious [“v’chanoon” – consoling the afflicted and raising up the oppressed, even when we don’t deserve it],
6. slow to anger [He is not quick to punish the sinner. He is not eagerly waiting to castigate us when we make the smallest mistake],
7. and abounding in lovingkindness [“rav chesed” – great in love and mercy, granting gifts and blessings beyond anything that man deserves],
8. and truth [“v’emet” – “emet” means firm, stable, reliable, faithful, loyal, and real. The God of Israel is the One who will never fail, disappoint or let us down],
9. who keeps lovingkindness to thousands [Since the natural tendency of children is to follow their parents, God remembers the good deeds of the righteous, and their lives have an impact on their descendants for a thousand generations. He reserves blessing and rewards to the remotest descendants, to the absolute maximum that is possible],
10. who forgives iniquity [“noseh avon” – “avon” means crooked, bent, twisted, depraved, perverse. This is sin that has affected man’s nature. God is willing to forgive this aspect of sin, which has corrupted our very nature],
11. transgression [“pesha” – this is a very strong term for sin. This is sin as open rebellion, deliberate trespass, active rebellion and enmity against God. God is willing to forgive even these high-handed kinds of sins],
12. and sin [“chata-ah” – this is sin that misses the mark. This is aiming for the bulls-eye but missing the target. This is a shortcoming due to not paying enough attention, carelessness, heedlessness and error. God is willing and able to forgive these kinds of sins].
These first twelve attributes are very encouraging, but they are tempered by the thirteenth attribute:
13. yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations. Just as God remembers the good deeds of those who believe in Him for a thousand generations, He also remembers the wicked deeds of the God-ignoring. Their lives have an impact on their descendants too, but God will mercifully limit their evil to only the third or fourth generations. The descendants of the unrighteous are not doomed forever and ever. They can break out of the cycle of sin and death. God is infinitely merciful, but this last aspect tells us that His mercy can’t destroy His justice. He will never obliterate the eternal and unbridgeable separation between good and evil, light and darkness. God can’t leave repeated wickedness and obstinate persistence in evil unpunished. The unrepentant sinner must eventually suffer the consequences of his deeds. God is full of mercy, compassion and forgiveness, yet it is perfectly consistent for Him to punish those who reject Him. If you refuse God’s mercy you remain in your sins and you will suffer punishment, but the person who acknowledges his guilt and accepts God’s mercy embodied by Messiah’s atonement is the one to whom God shows eternal mercy, and neverending forgiveness. He has always dealt with mankind in mercy, and He will always deal in justice when His mercy is despised.
GOD IS MERCIFUL TO ALL
We don’t realize the extent to which sin has alienated every human being from a perfect, flawless and holy God, and how detestable the evil that pervades us has made us in His sight. Joseph Alleine wroteAlarm to Unconverted Sinners that emphasizes the awful effect that sin has produced on humanity. So corrupt and perverse is mankind apart from the Messiah that Alleine imagines that creation itself would turn on man if God didn’t prevent it: “If inanimate creatures could but speak, your food would say, Lord, must I nourish such a wretch as this, and give forth my strength for him to dishonor You? The very air would say, Lord, must I give this man breath, so that he can speak against heaven and scorn Your people, and vent his pride and anger, and filthy language, and utter oaths and blasphemy against You? His poor animal would say, Lord, must I carry him upon his wicked plans? A wicked man! The earth groans under him, and hell groans for him, till death satisfies both.” In spite of mankind’s sinfulness, the Psalmist reminds us that the Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works (Psalm 145:8-9). Did you ever wonder why God did not destroy Adam and Eve after the Fall? Why the Lord forgave Israel after we worshiped the golden calf? Why He has endured all the sins of Israel for the past four thousand years? Why He has put up with the sins of the Church for two thousand years? There has been an endless succession of heresy, apostasy, greed, immorality, divisions, ceaseless struggles for power and preeminence in the visible body of Messiah. There have been professing Christians subjecting their fellow Christians to torture and death in the name of Christ. There have been nineteen centuries of anti-Semitism in the name of Jesus. Why has the Righteous One put up with the sins of this nation, which are growing worse day by day? Why does He put up with you and your sin, and me and my sin? The answer to all these questions is the same – because He is full of mercy to all. He does not enjoy it when people are punished or are eventually sent to hell. Here is the heart of God: I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, declares the Lord God. Therefore, repent and live (Ezekiel 18:32).
GOD IS MERCIFUL TO THOSE WHO TRUST HIM
The Lord is merciful to everyone He has made, but He is especially compassionate to those that fear Him. As Miriam declared in her prayer, His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him (Luke 1:50). He is especially merciful to those who seek His salvation: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:7). He specially favors those who call upon Him. Lord you are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant to all who call upon You (Ps. 86:5). To those who fear Him, who turn to Him, who call upon Him, He is the “Father of mercies” (2 Cor. 1:3), and we are encouraged to draw near to His throne of grace where we are assured, we will now “receive mercy” and may find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).
GOD’S MERCY WILL BE POURED OUT ON THE JEWISH PEOPLE
God’s mercy came to the Gentiles through the Jewish people. In the Last Days the process will be reversed, and it is God’s plan that the Jewish people will receive mercy through the Gentiles (see Romans 11:30-31). These touching words are directed to the storm tossed, persecuted, wandering sons of Israel. For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you says the Lord your Redeemer (Isaiah 54:7-8). Although we are in a state of great unbelief and don’t deserve God’s help, because of His great mercy He will deliver us. In His mercy He has not forsaken us or replaced us with the Church.
SHORT-CIRCUITING GOD’S MERCY
Although God’s mercy is abundant and available to all, unbelief will prevent us from receiving that mercy. Many people either don’t know or believe that God is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4), He has great mercy (1 Pet. 1:3), and that He is full of compassion and is merciful (James 5:11). They don’t realize that God’s mercy is fresh and new every day. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness (Lam. 3:22-23). If we really believed that, we could start off every day from here to eternity fresh, clean new, and we would never be afraid that God’s mercy would stop one day. How freeing, how liberating to know that even if we fell into sin yesterday, we can wake up and receive fresh mercy today!
We may lack the joy that we should have because we truly do not believe in the mercy of God as we should. It is not enough to believe that He showed mercy to Noah, or to Abraham, or to David, or that He will show mercy in some future day. We must believe that God’s mercy is boundless and free and is available to us now in our present situation. Don’t we believe that El Rachum – the God of Mercy (Deuteronomy 4:31) will forgive us seventy times seven times if we come to Him and ask for His forgiveness?
We can also hinder God’s mercy by not being merciful to others. If God has forgiven us of our eternal debt that we could never ever repay, we must forgive our fellow human being who may be indebted to us. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. If you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15). Withholding mercy to others will hinder how much of the mercy and forgiveness that God extends to us.
If we have experienced mercy from God, we must be merciful to others, even to those who do not deserve it. When we are confronted with ungrateful and evil people, our natural reaction is to say, “how wrong they are!” We take satisfaction from the knowledge that they are going to “get theirs” in the end. But Yeshua says our response should be very different. Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:35-36). Our attitude toward people must be the same as our Father’s – to have a compassionate spirit that is ready and willing to forgive, to hope and pray for their repentance and salvation. We need to hold out an open hand of friendship and forgiveness toward those who have sinned against us. We must not hope that they will be lost, judged, or condemned.
WE SEE GOD’S MERCY MOST CLEARLY IN MESSIAH
The supreme manifestation of the mercy of God was displayed in the sacrifice of God’s Son. God looked down from heaven on His poor, pitiful, ruined children and felt great mercy, compassion and pity toward us. Knowing that all humanity was heading to hell, and there was absolutely nothing that any human being could do to prevent it, God did what only He could do; He came down from heaven to rescue us out of our terrible situation, though we did not deserve it. God sent Messiah Yeshua to spare us from the hell to which all of us were headed, and which all of us deserved. God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged [that’s mercy]; he who does not believe has been judged already [that’s what we deserve] (John 3:17-18). It was Messiah’s death on the cross that opened the torrents of God’s mercy for Jew and Gentile.
When after all our work and struggles here on earth are over, and we finally reach the New Jerusalem, what right will we have to be there? Didn’t we, because of our sin, take part in that unholy rebellion that tried to dethrone the King of Glory? Didn’t we, in the past, walk in compliance with the course of this world, affirming the prince of the power of the air, that evil spirit that continues to work in the sons of disobedience? Didn’t we all live to satisfy the appetites of our flesh? Weren’t we by nature, children of wrath, just like the rest of humanity? But we one-time enemies of God who were alienated from Him will see God face to face, and His name will be on our foreheads. Though we earned banishment, we will enjoy communion. Though we deserve the pains of hell, we will enjoy the bliss of heaven. All of this will happen because of the tender mercies of our God given to us in the Messiah.
I am indebted to The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer for this article.