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