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God’s Mercy

Herman Hoeksema


The attribute of the mercy of God may be considered an aspect of His holiness. The Holy One is consecrated to Himself and centered in Himself as the only good. But even as the good is also beautiful and graceful, so He who is in Himself the only good and the fountain of all good, is also the absolutely blessed, and wills to be the most blessed one, as well as to reveal Himself as blessed in blessing His creatures. This is God’s mercy.

The term most frequently employed in the Old Testament to express the concept of mercy is חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy), and it is often used in connection with רַחֲמִים (rakh-a-meym—bowels, mercies), the plural of רָ֫חֶם (ra-khem—the womb, the inner parts as the seat of tender affections), equivalent to the Greek τὰ σλπὰγχνα (ta splankna—bowels, mercies), but often translated in the Septuagint by οἰκτιρμοί (oik-tirmoi—mercies).

Psalm 25:6 and Psalm 40:11 use חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy), and רַחֲמִים (rakh-a-meym—bowels, mercies) as synonyms: “Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old” (Ps. 25:6). Here the Hebrew of “thy tender mercies” is רַחֲמֶ֣יךָ (rakh-a-meykha), and “thy lovingkindnesses” is the rendering of the Hebrew חֲסָדֶיךָ (khe-sed-eyka). The Septuagint translates רַחֲמִים (rakh-a-meym—bowels, mercies) by οἰκτιρμοί (oik-tirmoi—mercies), the Vulgate by miserationes (compassions), the English by tender mercies, the German by Barmherzigheit (mercy), the Dutch also by barmhartigheid (mercy), while the French has miserecordes (compassions). חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) is rendered by ἐλεος (eleos—mercy) in the Septuagint, while the Vulgate has misericordia (mercy, pity), and the English has lovingkindnesses. The German, however, renders Gute (goodness), while the Dutch has goedertierenheid (benevolence, lovingkindness), and the French has graces (graces).

In Psalm 40:11 we read: “Withhold not thou thy tender mercies [רַחֲמֶ֣יךָ, rakh-a-meykha—thy bowels, mercies] from me, O Lord: let thy lovingkindness [חֲסָדֶי, khe-sed-ey—thy mercies] and thy truth continually preserve me.” Here the Septuagint renders רַחֲמִים (rakh-a-meym—bowels, mercies) by οἰκτιρμούς (oik-tir-mous—mercies) and חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) by ἐλεος (eleos—mercy). The Vulgate translates the two words by miserationes (compassions) and misericordia (mercy) respectively, the German by Barmherzigkeit (mercy) and Gute (goodness), the French by campassions (compassions) and bonte (goodness), while the Dutch has barmhartigheid (mercy) and weldadigheid (beneficence). There is, therefore, a very close relation between the two words. Fundamentally they express the same idea. Both refer to the affections and express the notion of the desire to make blessed and happy.

Without apparent reason, the Septuagint translates דחֶסֶ (khe-sed—mercy or kindness) by δικαιοσύνη (díkaio-súnē—righteousness) in Genesis 20:13 and Genesis 21:23. In both cases, the word ἐλεος (eleos—mercy) would have been more suitable, for the Hebrew word denotes a concrete manifestation of token of affection and kindness. The same is true of Exodus 15:13, where חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) evidently refers to the deep affection of God for His people revealed in His deliverance of them from the bondage of Egypt.

Interesting is Isaiah 40:6: “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field.” The Hebrew has חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) for “goodliness.” The Septuagint, however, translates mercy by δόξα (doksa—glory), and the Vulgate has gloria (glory), the German Gute (goodness), the French grace (grace), and the Dutch goedertierenheid (benevolence, kindness). Here, חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) reveals affinity with חֵ֥ן (khane—grace) in the sense of beauty, gracefulness, as the comparison with the flower of the field shows plainly. Perhaps the connection must be found in the fact that the tender affections are beautiful in their manifestation.

Important also is Jeremiah 31:3: “The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” Here the close relation between חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) and the love of God אָהַב (a-haḇ—to long after), as its deepest source, is emphasized. The translation of חֶסֶד מְשַׁכְתִּ֥ךְי (me-shak-teyk khes-ed—with lovingkindness have I drawn thee) is somewhat difficult. חֶסֶד מְשַׁךְ (meshak khes-ed) really means “to draw out, to prolong mercy,” as in Psalm 36:10: “O continue thy lovingkindness unto them that know thee; and thy righteousness to the upright in heart.” In Psalm 109:12, the same expression occurs with a somewhat different connotation: “Let there be none to extend mercy unto him.” Here the meaning is probably “Let no one cause his mercy to reach out for him.” The difficulty in Jeremiah 31:3 is the double accusative מְשַׁכְתִּ֥ךְי (me-shak-teyk—thy prolonging) and חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy). The meaning is probably “I prolonged thy existence as I reached out to thee in my mercy.” The source of this act of mercy is God’s sovereign and unchangeable love to His people. He loved Israel; therefore, His mercy reached out for them as they sank more deeply into misery; thereby they are preserved, and their existence is prolonged or continued. The Septuagint here translates חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) by οἰκτιρημα (oik-tir-ema—mercies). In eternal love, God is tenderly affected toward His people, moved by the will to bless them. That is His mercy.

Beautiful, too, is Jeremiah 31:20: “Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the LORD.” The affection of Jehovah for His people is very strongly expressed here. The original for “I will surely have mercy upon him” is ra-khem araha-menoo—with mercy I will mercy him, which the Septuagint translates by ἐλεῶν ἐλεήσω αὐτόν (with mercies I will show mercy to him).

In Isaiah 63:7 the two terms חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) and רַחֲמִים (rakh-a-meym—bowels, mercies) occur together with very little difference in meaning. But both the context and the text emphasize that the mercy of Jehovah and His great lovingkindness are the divine motive for blessing His people and destroying their enemies. It is that tender affection toward Israel, that will to bless them, that desire of Jehovah’s heart to see Israel blessed and happy, that is the positive reason for His anger of which the entire preceding context speaks. For when the “year of [His] redeemed is come,” Jehovah saw that there was none to help; therefore, His own arm brought salvation unto him, and His fury upheld him. He will tread down the people in His anger, make them drunk in His fury, and bring down their strength to the earth (vv. 4–6). But as to His people, “in all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old” (v. 9). Remembering this, the prophet exclaims, “I will mention the lovingkindnesses of the LORD, and the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD hath bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which he hath bestowed on them according to his mercies, and according to the multitude of his lovingkindnesses” (v. 7). Jehovah’s mercy is His tender affection over His people and His will to bless them and to bestow upon them all good.

חֶסֶד (khe-sed—mercy) is used in connection with בְּרית (berith—covenant), the everlasting covenant of God with His people, as in Deuteronomy 7:9: “Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations.” And in Psalm 89:28: “My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him.” The thought is that God’s covenant and His mercy are inseparable. His covenant is a covenant of mercy. It is in and according to His covenant that He is merciful to His people and that He blesses them with all the blessing of salvation in Christ.

This is also the thought of New Testament passages that mention the mercy of God, such as 1 Peter 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Notice that here mercy is the standard of the great salvation God works for His people and of the abundant goodness He bestows upon them in leading them out of misery to the glorious inheritance prepared for them. This mercy is called “abundant” because of the depth of misery from which it saves and because of the height of glory to which it leads the people of God. Hence, mercy is a strong affection of love toward His people in misery and a mighty desire to make them blessed in the highest possible degree. The same thought is expressed in Jude, verse 21 and in 1 Timothy 1:16, although in 1 Timothy 1:16 the verb is used. In Ephesians 2:4-5, the verb is used also, and especially the power of divine mercy as God’s will to bless is strongly emphasized. God is said to be rich in mercy. Being rich in mercy, He quickened us together with Christ, that so He might satisfy the demands of His own love wherewith he loved us. Especially the context emphasizes the idea that mercy is the strong desire to render its object blessed in the highest possible degree; though we were dead through trespasses and sins, by the mercy of God we are raised with Christ and made to sit together with Him in heavenly places (v. 6). Beautiful in this respect is Romans 9:23, where those who are ordained to eternal glory are called “the vessels of mercy,” upon whom God, by realizing them as vessels of mercy, reveals the riches of His own glory (cf. Luke 1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78; and note the term mercy in the apostolic blessing, Gal. 6:16; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2 John, v. 3; Jude, v. 2).

God’s Mercy Defined

We find, then, the following elements in the scriptural conception of the mercy of God. Mercy has its seat in the will, particularly in the affection of God. It is a divine affection. Mercy has its purpose in glory and blessedness. It is such a divine affection as desires to render its object perfectly blessed in the highest possible degree. When this affection is directed toward an object that is in misery, it reveals itself as commiseration and compassion and as power to deliver from deepest woe.

Even of mercy it must be said that it is an attribute of God in the absolute sense. God is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4), not because of through any relation to us, but absolutely and in Himself.

As an attribute of God, mercy is the attribute or virtue of God according to which He is tenderly affected toward Himself as the highest and sole good and the implication of all perfections, and as the triune God knows and wills Himself as the most blessed forever.

With respect to His people, mercy is the virtue of God according to which He wills them to be perfectly blessed in Him and to taste His own blessedness, and according to which He leads them through death to the highest possible life of His covenant friendship.

We may add that there is not only a close relation, but also a clear distinction, between love, grace, and mercy. Love is the bond that unites the ethically perfect. Grace is the objective pleasantness and the subjective attraction of the ethically perfect. Mercy wills and desires the ethically perfect to be blessed. It should be evident from this that God cannot be merciful to the reprobate wicked and that His mercy toward His people must be founded in His sovereign election, according to which He beholds them eternally as perfectly righteous in the beloved.

(Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics [Granville, MI: RFPA, 2004], vol. 1, pp. 161-166)