We can know the mystery of God’s mercy only because God has revealed it Himself, and because it has been recorded by the inspired authors in the sacred books of the Old and New Testament. In the history of the world, in the lives of individual biblical characters and in the history of the Chosen People, God has revealed his merciful love, which not only lifts man from sin, but also helps any human weakness, heals shortcomings, and grants man existence. Mercy therefore is manifested in every external action of God: both the creative and the redemptive. Everything God does for man is an expression of His merciful love.
The Old Testament uses many terms to describe this mercy of the Triune God in all its rich reality. Each term highlights some aspect of this great mystery of our faith. The Hebrew term for mercy, which is most often used (more than two hundred times), is the word hesed. It occurs in the Pentateuch, in the historical books, in the wisdom literature, and most frequently in the Psalms and in the prophets; in particular, this word is used in the context of the covenant which God concluded with the Chosen People. It means ‘faithful love’, ever showing goodness and grace. The term hesed emphasizes such features of God’s mercy as fidelity to Himself (the covenant made with man), and responsibility in love. In the Hebrew Bible the phrase hesed weemet, i.e. grace and faithfulness, can be found more than thirty times.
The inspired authors used the word rahamim very often (a word derived from rehem – mother’s womb), which highlights some features of womanly and motherly love. It can be characterized by a strong intensity of the most tender emotions. The term rahamim indicates the total involvement of man in helping others, sympathising even to the point of tears. It signifies love freely given, undeserved, flowing from the need, or from the ‘obligation’ of the heart, which can be characterized by: kindness, tenderness, patience, understan- ding and willingness to forgive. This thought is expressed most deeply in the words of the Book of Hosea 11.8, which are the confession of God’s love towards the infidel Ephraim.
There are other words expressing the mystery of God’s mercy: hanan defines a disposition which is permanent, kind, gracious and generous. The word hamal (literally to save a defeated enemy) expresses this trait of mercy which indicates showing mercy, compassion, forgiveness and pardon of guilt. The word hus has a similar meaning – it expresses pity and compassion primarily as a feeling. Sometimes the word hen also signifies kindness and a friendly attitude towards others, especially towards those in a difficult situation.
“Who can measure his majestic power, or exhaust the tale of his mercies?” (Sir 18: 5). “For your love towers to the heavens; your faithfulness, to the skies.” (Ps 57: 11). These words taken from Holy Scripture are a testimony that God’s Chosen People experienced God primarily through His mercy. But what is God’s goodness? How does God reveal His merciful love?
In the Bible mercy means any gesture by God of love towards the creation. God’s goodness is not limited to acts of forgiveness to man, although mercy reveals its depth most clearly in such acts. However, the very work of creation is an act of mercy. The Psalmist makes direct reference to it, when praising God for His hesed, i.e. goodness, kindness, desire to grant His love and grace (Psalm 136). In the words of the author of this Psalm: “because God’s hesed endures forever” – it is the mercy of God which has caused to exist, among other things, the sun, the moon, the stars, etc. (Psalm 136: 5-9). Psalm 145: 9 will clearly indicate that “the Lord is good to all, compassionate to every creature.” God loves the beings He created, and shows mercy to all things (Gr. eleeo), as described in the Book of Wisdom (Ws 11: 23-24). The world was created and still exists due to this benevolent love. The Hebrew Bible presents God’s mercy as still alive and true today and constantly at work. The merciful love of God could be compared to the air which keeps world and man alive.
The mercy of Yahweh came to be seen as a characteristic which distinguishes God of Israel from the idols of the heathen peoples (see Mi 7:18). Micah says that God took a liking to mercy (Mi 7:18). As the Psalmist admits, mercy lasts for ages (Ps 25:6). Mercy is so vast that man, while wanting to express its greatness, experiences language difficulties. Therefore the Old Testament authors frequently combine the terms of God’s goodness with words speaking of the greatness of this attribute (e.g. Ne 13:22, Tb 8:16, Ps 69:17, Is 63:7). Quite often they juxtapose similar words indicating mercy, for example, the following formula can be found in Exodus: “the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations.” (Ex 34:6-7) The same sort of idea is exemplified in six other texts: Ne 9:17, Ps 86:15, 103:8, 145:8, Joel 2:13, and Jon 4:2. The author of the Book of Wisdom calls God directly “Lord of mercy” (Ws 9:1).
But how did the Chosen People come to have this awe and wonder at God’s mercy? Why this multiplicity of expressions of God’s goodness? Well, the very motivation for the choice of one particular people as the sole property of God is permeated with His love. In Deuteronomy 7:7n we can read that God, while choosing the people, was not motivated by any other considerations, but only by love (Dt 7:8) and by loyalty to the oath given to Abraham (cf. Dt 7:8). It is noteworthy that, precisely in the context of justifying the choice of Abraham’s descendants to be the Chosen People, a teaching can be found that God is faithful and keeps His covenant and love to a thousand generations. Thus, for the Chosen People the fundamental meaning of mercy was God’s fidelity to the word given. The Chosen People derive their roots from this hesed – faithful love. Mercy was therefore revealed primarily in the dialogue between God and man, and in the establishing of the Covenant. The Chosen People realized that their existence – and likewise that each newly conceived life – was subject to God’s goodness; the nation’s future was rooted first and foremost in the merciful love of God (Hebrew rahamim), i.e. God’s yearning for man (cf. Dt 13:18).
The work of leading the Chosen People out from the slavery in Egypt also comes from hesed. Although the term mercy does not appear directly in the description of the event, the exodus itself was shown as an act of God’s mercy. For God, seeing the anguish and misery of the People, their suffering and tears, came down to rescue them (cf. Ex 3:7n). The author of Psalm 136 glorifies God in a poetic way for His mercy (hesed) shown by the miraculous liberation of the Chosen People from the yoke of the Pharaoh (Ps 136:10-24). The Mercy of God came to be seen as a liberating force, the power defending those unjustly oppressed. All the works God performed before and during the journey to the Promised Land, have their source in God’s faithful goodness. Incidentally, the whole of Psalm 136 can be seen as a great Te Deum in honour of Divine Mercy, which the Chosen People experienced through the work of liberation from the slavery in Egypt. The author of the Book of Nehemiah, on the other hand, underlines God’s loving presence (Nehemiah 9:19) and tells of His accompanying the people during their journey across the desert, both day and night. The gift of food, water, and finally the fulfilment of the promise of a gift of land also come from God’s grace. One echo of gratitude for that event, abounding in God’s goodness, is to be found in the following words of the Haggadah (the story of the departure of Jews from slavery in Egypt, read during the Passover Seder meal at Passover): “How numerous then and how oft repeated are the benefits which the Almighty has bestowed upon us!”
However, God’s mercy revealed its beauty most of all in contact with the reality of human infidelity. The Chosen People repeatedly disobeyed and betrayed God already at the time of crossing of the desert, for example by making an idol – the golden calf (Exodus 32:4), or by showing a lack of faith in God’s providence. Sin implied the breach of the Covenant and therefore, strictly speaking, God was no longer obliged to provide mercy, or to bless His people. For the betrayal of His commandments, God had the right to destroy the nation He had chosen. Whereas, He turns out to be true above all to Himself, to His love for man, which lasts for good or for evil and which is stronger than betrayal. Nehemiah 9:17-19 sums up this reality succinctly, stating that the people turned aside from obedience, permitted blasphemies, and ignored the great interventions of God. Yet God in His great mercy showed forgiveness.
In the light of these considerations, the question may arise concerning the sense of punishment. Is there any place at all for it in God’s mercy? It turns out that punishment can also be seen as one of the manifestations of God’s concern for man. In the Book of Ben Sira we can read that “for mercy and anger alike are with Him who remits and forgives, though on the wicked alights His wrath.” (Si 16:11) Another passage from the Book of Exodus 34:7 compares the size of punishment and mercy. God’s forgiveness is unlimited (for a thousand generations), while the punishment lasts only for a relatively short time. God is slow to anger and reluctant to punish man. The book of Hosea 11:8 shows this in a vivid way: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred” (Hos 11:8). But He punishes out of mercy to encourage man to repent, because He desires man’s happiness. God therefore, the minute He observes improvement and grief in man, rushes to the rescue. Juxtapositions of the terms of mercy and salvation, occurring so frequently in the Old Testament, are thus significant (e.g. Ps 6:5, 17:7, Si 2:11, Ba 4:22).
However, the mercy of God is not limited only to the Chosen People. As the author of the Book of Ben Sira 18:13 tells us: “Man may be merciful to his fellow man, but the Lord’s mercy reaches all flesh” (Si 18:13). The Book of Jonah speaks of the universalism of mercy in a most eloquent way. God, seeing the enormity of sin of the people of Nineveh, sends them a prophet with the mission of calling them to repentance. Jonah, however, wants harsh punishment for the cruel enemies of Israel. He decides to evade God’s command, because he knows that “you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish.” (Jon 4:2), God can therefore forgive Nineveh. And so it happened. In the context of this story we can get to know the condition for receiving God’s forgiveness, that is contrition for committed sins. Contrition, however, is not only a feeling, but a categorical departure from evil, doing penance, as the people of Nineveh did. Often the books of the Old Testament present the willingness to amend and the confession of one’s own weakness as conditions for receiving God’s forgiveness of sins (2 Chronicles 30:9, Psalm 79:8). Psalm 51 is perhaps the most beautiful biblical text showing the relationship between a sinner’s contrition and God’s forgiveness. Already the first words of the prayer call for God’s mercy: “Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offence.” (Ps 51:3), “For I know my offense …” (Ps 51:5). The author of the Book of Ben Sira expresses this truth in the form of a wonder: “How great the mercy of the Lord, his forgiveness of those who return to him” (Si 17:29).
Prophetic books particularly extol the gift of God’s love, which is stronger than man’s sin and able to forgive repeatedly. Among them, the following quotation from Isaiah can be seen as the leading one: “Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, My love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you.” (Is 54:10) The following words from the Book of Jeremiah are like God’s own confession of His love abounding with forgiveness: “With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you” (Jr 31:3). God, however, does not stop at showing proofs of His goodness, but craves for man’s mercy! God demands fidelity from man, as we can read in the Book of Hosea: “For it is love [hesed] that I desire, not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6).
The prophets give us a kind of revelation of God’s heart and clearly show His ardent love, which does everything for His chosen ones so that they would be happy. The Old Testament often demonstrates the experience of God’s mercy as a source of joy (Ps 13:6, Ba 4:22) and the emergence of gratitude. Psalm 107 can be a telling example of this, as it extols the goodness of God in leading His People out of slavery and liberation from misery. As many as four times it calls the people to show gratitude to God for His mercy (v. 8, 15, 21, 31), because whenever the Israelites begged God for help, they were heard (v. 6, 13, 19, 28).
Thus the books of the Old Testament show God’s mercy in the work of creation, but above all in the context of the remission of man’s sins and infidelity. The experience of forgiveness becomes a source of life’s joy and meaning. There is only one single condition for obtaining it. That is a genuine desire to return to God. Each creature is held in existence by God’s love, bending over what is small, weak, and in need of support. The very fact of an infinite number of Old Testament passages describing God’s goodness, proves His constancy in accompanying man, His boundlessness and the power of what St. Faustina called “this greatest attribute of God”.
Sr. Maria Faustyna Ciborowska ISMM
Translated by Orest Pawlak