Mercy is God's true character

I’d like you to put your imagination to work. Visualise this scene.

The Colosseum

They were known to each other, had spent time sparring against one another and had even fought together, but today Rome had selected them to fight against each other in the great arena known as the Colosseum. 

After saluting the Emperor and repeating their gladiatorial vows to fight with honour, courage and to the death, the signal was given for the bout to commence. After fighting for over an hour, with the madding crowd blocking any noise of pain as they nicked each other’s flesh or strained under the heavy armour, neither gladiator was prepared to make this their final appearance.

But in a brief moment, in the blink of an eye, the quickest of movements delivered pain and agony to his opponent. The felled gladiators fell to the ground, realising his abdomen had been sliced by the sword. He clutched at his exposed stomach as the bleed welled and spilled over his fingers.

Soon, the blood was pouring from his wound. He was squinting and trying hard to shield his eyes from the sun’s piercing rays. So, he decided to rely on his other senses to help understand what was happening around him.

At no point did the crowd stop with their cheering, howling and frenzied screams, and while most other gladiators in his position may take this a sign that their end was drawing close, he managed a small smile that crept over his face, for above the deafening noise he could hear phrase that could dictate a different end.

Above all the noise he heard, ‘Mercy, mercy for this brave fighter. Mercy, mercy….’, and so on. Soon it was not just confined to one small area of the arena, but began to spread to the left, the right and across the stadium. ‘Mercy, mercy for this brave fighter…’.

Elodius, for that was his name, felt life coming back into him despite the fact that it was his blood staining the sand. Soon he’d be carried off the arena by the Emperor’s guards, taken to the local hospital, treated to his wounds, given wine, food and rest, plenty of rest. For Mars, the Roman god of war, was smiling on Elodius that day.

So he lay back again, smiling and confident that the Emperor would grant him mercy. After all, was he not as deserving of it than any other fighter? Was he not?

This was Elodius’ last thought… for at that very moment, the sun’s rays disappeared from his face. Blinking his eyes open, he was just in time to see his opponent looming in front of him, his outstretched arm driving his sword deep into Elodius’ chest, until the blade reached Elodius’ heart. For on that day, the Emperor had decided no mercy would be granted.

What is mercy?

The dictionary definition of mercy is the compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone when it is within one’s power to punish or harm them.

In Hebrew, the main term used for mercy is hesed. Hesed means God’s covenant loving-kindness. Another word often used to define mercy and God’s character is rachamanut, which means pity or compassion. In fact, the word rachum ve-chanun, which is where rachamanut is derived, refers directly to being one of God’s chief attributes, which is compassion and grace. The Lord Himself reinforced this when He defined His character as:

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

In other words, YHWH is rachum ve-chanun – both compassionate and gracious.

A covenant of mercy

As we will discover, mercy is not only in itself an act that is committed between two parties, but we now have just learnt it is also an intrinsic attribute and a key character of God’s personality. Without it, we would never be able to associate those words we take for granted, such as love, compassion, pity or even mercy towards others, whilst also understanding that they describe who God is and how He wants us to be in the world.

But mercy, in particular God’s mercy, also goes hand in hand with one another component that helps us understand how we can best demonstrate mercy to others. Let’s be honest, we would never have had any idea what mercy was unless we first learnt it from our Lord, who showed His mercy towards an unloving and uncaring generation.

So what else do we need to take into account when understanding what mercy means to God?

“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9).

This was an area of concern, not only for the Father but for Christ Himself when confronting the religious leaders of His day, the Pharisees. They were regarded as the experts law-keeping, but were quick to pass judgment on anyone committing the most minor of infraction. Their interpretation of the law often seemed merciless. How was it possible to understand and obey God’s commandments, without displaying mercy? 

It simply isn’t possible.

Mercy is lawful

Jesus said,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).

It helps us to understand that keeping God’s commandments and showing mercy are synonymous. To be merciful is God’s desire for you. He has commanded it of you. So keeping God’s commandments and displaying mercy are intrinsically linked.

God first had mercy on us and gave us His commandments, not as a way of punishing or burdening our lives. “No!” He gave them to liberate us from the sin that weighed us down, showing us what a life ordered by God’s priorities would look like. 

His mercy towards us resulted in Him giving us these commandments. In return, obedience to these commandments would give us a greater understanding of what is true mercy. So you can see both God’s commandments and mercy are linked together, and both share a common beginning, originating in God.

What happens when you separate mercy and law-keeping?

The Pharisees during Christ’s time failed to understand this, so differentiated between keeping the law and showing mercy to others. To them, they understood God only through the rigours of keeping the law—every single aspect of the law, Moses’ law, Abraham’s law and so on, with so much to observe and apply. It is no wonder they had no time for the less important things like mercy. They did not see a merciful God and nor did they understand this was His nature. All they saw was a God whose laws had to be obeyed at the cost of showing mercy to others.

God was law, but the law on its own did not reflect God’s mercy, so why should they show any mercy at all? What do you think the Pharisees displayed that is quite common today?

That’s right: Lack of mercy.

Everyone has the capacity to show mercy. After all, we were created in the image of God:

“So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

So God implanted the character trait of mercy in humanity. But since sin entered the world, people have been predisposed towards having a lack of mercy. So someone once observed:

“A righteous man regards the life of his animal, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Proverbs 12:10).

Another reason God’s mercy is important

If you remember, I pointed out that one definition of mercy in Hebrew was the word hesed, ’God’s covenant loving-kindness.’ So we all worship a covenant making and keeping God.  In the past God had made a number of covenants through people like Abraham, Moses, Isaac and so on, and the fundamental thing about making a covenant with God was this: He never changes them, they were perpetual, He is obligated to keep them and it was made between God and us, the human race. 

Hesed, this Hebrew word that is used to describe mercy is defined as ‘God’s covenant loving-kindness’, but if we were to break up the meaning of hesed even further, we can come to the following conclusions:

  1. It’s God’s covenant, not ours. We did not instigate it nor did we have a say in how it would be implemented;
  2. This particular covenant was not an instruction or an agreement between two parties, but rather it is a reminder to us of God’s unchanging nature; and lastly
  3. The fact that this word hesed refers to a covenant at all, tells us that, much like every other covenant that God made with His people, it remains forever! It is unchanging, not negotiable, it is binding and it reflects the true identity of its author, God!

We are merely recipients of God’s covenant loving-kindness, not active participants. That is, we can’t dictate to God how He will show His hesed, to whom, when, where and why He should show his hesed. However, this is not the same as saying that we are incapable of showing the same mercy to others once we’ve come to the understanding that this covenant of God’s loving-kindness was already in existence!

Are we all in agreement? 

When God makes a promise, He keeps it no matter what. If He intended that His covenants with mankind were to be perpetual, then so is His mercy towards us… whether we deserve it or not! God’s covenant loving-kindness is still being kept today – the only thing that changed was our attitude towards it. Some accept it and receive His mercy, others do not. 

Mercy then comes to be seen as the quality in God that directs Him to forge a relationship with people who absolutely do not deserve to be in relationship with Him. 

No part of God’s hesed has changed from the moment man and woman were first created to today. When God sent His Son to live among us and ultimately to die for the world’s sin, God gave the ultimate demonstration of hesed

His mercy and desire to rescue us from sin’s grasp are two different concepts, but were misunderstood or overlooked by the Pharisees. While casting their hearts and minds to the laws of old, weighed down by customs and traditions, these men of law neglected to look instead at Christ as an example of God’s mercy and what their new future in Him could have been.

The disciple Peter, who witnessed many encounters between His Master and the Pharisees, reminded his readers—many of whom were Jews—of the Old Testament records when God had established a covenant with Israel and made the connection between them and a new life in Christ. Peter wrote:

“…by His abundant mercy He has given us a new birth through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

The problem that Christ had when encountering these men of the law, was not just their narrow-mindedness and rejection of God’s mercy as being a covenant promise, but to them displaying mercy to others was also seen as a sign of weakness and proof that the law did not exist in that person’s life. It was far easier for them to judge than to love. God responds to this attitude by asking: 

“Are you, perhaps, misinterpreting God’s generosity and patient mercy towards you as weakness on His part? Don’t you realise that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).

In putting all their energy towards attacking Christ, the love and mercy He showed towards others, the Pharisees had missed the opportunity to come under God’s mercy and subsequently be saved.

How often was Christ attacked, openly and in private, when He demonstrated God’s hesed by healing the sick on the Sabbath? Rather than focus on the act itself as a valuable teaching of how we should interact mercifully with others, the Pharisees were hung up on which of the laws was Christ now breaking. 

Ironically, these men of the law were being far more obedient to the law of man’s sinful nature than the actual law of God. For had they truly understood His law then they would realise that their sinful acts were a transgression of the law.  

“Whoever commits sin transgresses the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).

But instead, they:

  • Rejected it;
  • Did not preach it and nor practice it;
  • Did not comprehend it as being God’s nature and covenant; and worse
  • Failed to see it in action when the Son of God was there to show them!

Conclusion

This is the best summary of what God’s mercy does for us.

He sings before men and says:
‘I sinned and perverted what was right,
    and it was not repaid to me.
He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit,
    and my life shall look upon the light.’

“Behold, God does all these things,
    twice, three times, with a man, 
to bring back his soul from the pit,
    that he may be lighted with the light of life” (Job 33:27–33).

The Pharisees failed to see the point in God’s mercy. You and I are privileged to have all these facts presented to us and to make our choice.

So what does a world that is lacking with mercy look like? (Click the link to find out.)

God’s promise to us still remains the same today:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Will you come under His hesed or be like the Pharisees and reject it?