The term mercy may designate both character and actions that emerge as a consequence of that character. As a part of character, mercy is demonstrated most clearly by such qualities as compassion and forbearance. With respect to action an act of mercy issues from compassion and forbearance; in a legal sense mercy may involve such acts as pardon, forgiveness, or the mitigation of penalties.^[1]^ In each case mercy is experienced and exercised by a person who has another person in his power, or under his authority, or from whom no kindness can be claimed. Thus God may show mercy toward human beings, who are all ultimately within his power, even though they have no direct claim, in terms of their behavior, to attitudes or actions of mercy. And a human being may be merciful another, to whom neither compassion nor forbearance is due, by free act of though toward that person.^[2]^

From a theological perspective the characteristic of mercy is rooted in God and experienced in relation to God, from whom it may be acquired as a Christian virtue and exercised in relation to fellow human beings.^[3]^ In the Bible a variety of Hebrew and Greek words are used which fall within the general semantic range of the English word "mercy." They include such terms as "lovingkindness" (Heb. ?esed), "to be merciful" (Heb. ??nan), "to have compassion" (Heb. ri?am), and "grace" (Gr. charis).^[4]^

In the OT, mercy (in the sense of lovingkindness) is a central theme; the very existence of the covenant between God and Israel was an example of mercy, being granted to Israel freely and without prior obligation on the part of God (Ps. 79:8-9; Isa. 63:7). Insofar as the covenant was rooted in divine love, mercy was an ever-present quality of the relationship it expressed; the law, which formed a central part of the covenant relationship, cam with the promise of forgiveness and mercy, contingent upon repentance, for the breaking of that law.^[5]^ Yet the divine mercy extended beyond the obligations of the covenant, so that even when Israel's sin had exhausted the covenantal category of mercy, still the loving mercy of God reached beyond the broken covenant in its promise and compassion to Israel.^[6]^

With the new covenant the mercy of God is seen in the death of Jesus Christ; the sacrificial death is in itself a merciful act, demonstrating the divine compassion and making possible the forgiveness of sins. From this fundamental gospel there follows the requirement for all Christians, who are by definition the recipients of mercy, to exercise mercy and compassion toward fellow human beings (Matt. 5:7; James 2:13).^[7]^

Throughout Christian history the awareness of the continuing human need for divine mercy has remained as a central part of Christian worship. The kyrie eleison of the ancient church has continued to be used in many liturgical forms of worship: "Lord, have mercy upon us; Christ, have mercy upon us; Lord have mercy upon us." And from the prayer emploed in worship for God's mercy, there must follow the practice of mercy in life.^[8]^

Footnotes

  1. ? Rudolf Bultmann, "Mercy" Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:477-87.
  2. ? Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961).
  3. ? Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1975), 2:593-601.
  4. ? Ibid.
  5. ? H. Köster, "Compassion" Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1964), 7:548-59.
  6. ? Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1967).
  7. ? W. L. Reed, Journal of Biblical Literature, (Chico, Calif.: Scholar's Press, 1881), 23:35-41.
  8. ? Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, (New York: Schocken Books, 1964).

See also