A Biblical Word



“Happy the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Jesus promises nothing else to the merciful than what they are already living—mercy. In the other beatitudes, the promise contains something more, leads further: those who weep will be comforted; the pure of heart will see God. But what more could God give to the merciful? Mercy is the fullness of God and of human beings. The merciful are already living God’s own life.
“Mercy” is an old word. In the course of its long history it has acquired a very rich meaning. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for mercy is eleos. This word is familiar to us from the prayer Kyrie eleison, which is a call for the Lord’s mercy. Eleos is the usual translation in the Greek version of the New Testament for the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is one of the most beautiful words in the Bible. It is often translated simply by love.

Hesed, mercy or love, is part of the vocabulary of the covenant. On God’s side, it stands for an steadfast love, one able to keep alive a relationship forever, regardless of what happens: “My love will never depart from you” (Isaiah 54:10). But since God’s covenant with his people is a story of broken promises and new beginnings from the very start (Exodus 32–34), it is evident that such an unconditional love includes forgiveness; it must of necessity be merciful.

Eleos also is used to translate another Hebrew word, rachamim. This word is often used together with hesed, but is more emotionally loaded. Literally it stands for the bowels; it is a plural form of rechem, a mother’s womb. Mercy or compassion is here a love which is felt, the deep affection of a mother for her little child (Isaiah 49:15), the tenderness of a father for his offspring (Psalm 103:13), an intense love between brothers and sisters ­(Genesis 43:30).

Mercy in the biblical sense is much more than simply one aspect of God’s love. Mercy is in some sense God’s own being. God speaks his Name three times to Moses. The first time, he says “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). The second time: “I am gracious to whom I am gracious, and show mercy to whom I show mercy” (Exodus 33:19). The rhythm of the phrase is the same, but graciousness and mercy are substituted for being. For God, being who he is means being gracious and showing mercy. This is confirmed by the third proclamation of the divine Name: “The Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, rich in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).

This last formula was taken up by the prophets and in the psalms, particularly in Psalm 103, verse 8. In the central part (verses 11-13), this psalm marvels at the incredible scope of God’s mercy: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is God’s mercy…”: mercy is thus God’s loftiness, his transcendence. But it is also God’s humanity, if we can put it that way: “As a father has compassion on his children…” So transcendent and at the same time so close, it is able to take away all evil: “As far as the East is from the West, so far he removes our faults from us.”

Mercy is what is most divine in God, but also what is most sublime in human beings. “He crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,” says Psalm 103. This verse should be read in the light of another verse from Psalm 8 where it is said that God crowns human beings “with glory and honor.” Created in the divine image, human beings are called to share in God’s glory and beauty. But it is steadfast love and mercy that enable us to participate truly in God’s own life.

Jesus’ words: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) echo the ancient commandment “Be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Jesus imparted the face of mercy to God’s holiness. Mercy is the purest reflection of God in a human life. “Through mercy to your neighbor you resemble God” (Saint Basil the Great). Mercy is God’s humanity. It is also the divine future of human beings.

Last updated: 7 May 2008