In the Bible, God’s mercy means His pity, compassion, and kindness toward people. His mercy shows up in the believer’s life at salvation, and then God continues to show mercy in forgiveness. Mercy triumphs over judgment but refusing God’s mercy is disastrous.
Mercy: Meaning and Definition
Theologians have defined “mercy” in clear terms. In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Edwards said it most graphically:
“God is pleased to show mercy to His enemies, according to His own sovereign pleasure. Though He is infinitely above all, and stands in no need of creatures; yet He is graciously pleased to take a merciful notice of poor worms in the dust.”
In a lighter vein, Millard Erickson wrote in Christian Theology,
“God’s mercy is His tenderhearted, loving compassion for His people. It is His tenderness of heart toward the needy. If grace contemplates humans as sinful, guilty and condemned, mercy sees them as miserable and needy.”
Scripturally, at the root of the word “mercy,” we find several Old Testament Hebrew words.
Mercy in Hebrew
- Racham means “to love or have compassion,” to have a disposition of mercy. (Psalm 116:5)
- Kapporeth means “ransom” and it’s associated with the “mercy seat” in Scripture. (Exodus 25:22)
- Chesed means “goodness,” “kindness,” or “mercifulness.” (Psalm 18:25)
Mercy in Greek
- In the New Testament Greek, the words are Eleemon, meaning “to have pity on,” to “show compassion,” or to “be merciful;” (Matthew 5:7)
- Oiktirmos also suggests compassion or pity. It’s the idea of divine forbearance in showing compassion and passing over sins. (Romans 12:1)
Meaning of God’s Mercy
1. It’s God’s patience in action.
Author and blogger Tim Challies described mercy as “God acting patient. It is God extending patience to those who deserve to be punished,” Challies said. “Mercy is not something God owes to us—by definition mercy cannot be owed—but is something God extends in kindness and grace to those who do not deserve it.”
God is patient in mercy because he is holding off the judgment of justice to a later time. It is not injustice, but rather “choosing not to bring justice immediately.” When we see the holiness of God and the horror of sin, Challies said, “it is mercy that is shocking.”
2. It’s beyond our understanding.
Not only do we have a patient God, His mercy is outrageous. William Farley wrote in Outrageous Mercy: Rediscovering the Radical Nature of the Cross—quoted by Challies—“The cross displays God’s mercy and grace and justice, and does so with startling clarity.” Farley said, “If you have never been deeply scandalized and offended by the cross, you may have never really heard its message.”
Its message? Mercy beyond our understanding. Because God’s wrath and mercy met at the cross, we can be transformed and made fit for eternity.
Examples of Mercy in the Bible
We first learn of God’s mercy in the story of Adam and Eve, when God covered their shame with the skins of a sacrificed animal (Genesis 3:21).
Israel’s Mercy Seat
Then we learn of the mercy seat where God would meet with the priests on Israel’s behalf in Exodus 25:19-22. The Greek word for mercy seat, translated from the Old Testament, is hilasterion—usually translated “propitiation.” We see this word in Romans 3:25. Christ became the once-and-for-all acceptable and wrath-satisfying sacrifice on our behalf.
In “What Is the Mercy Seat?”, Stephen Nichols wrote, God desires to meet with His people, and the blood of the spotless lamb is the only means by which that meeting is possible. The mercy seat of the Old Testament, and the blood sprinkled upon it by the high priest, prefigured Christ to come.” The mercy seat was as real as the cross to come. Christ is now our mercy seat.
God’s mercy never runs out. “There is no ‘empty’ on the mercy tank in heaven,” wroteDr. David Jeremiah in The Jeremiah Study Bible. “God just waits for His people to demonstrate that we really mean business. When we come to Him in true repentance, His mercy will just overflow us like the waves of the sea, because He is rich in mercy.” (See Ephesians 2:4-5)
Why is Mercy Important?
Mercy triumphs over judgment, but refusing mercy is disastrous, inviting judgement. God’s judgement for sin is never unjust. “His judgment is always the result of mercy that was offered and refused,” wroteNancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, “mercy that was offered and spurned.” The Lord is patient and never wants us to perish. He wants us to repent, but those who refuse mercy will receive judgment (2 Peter 3:9; Proverbs 29:1).
Scriptures on Mercy
God’s mercy shows up in our lives at salvation (Titus 3:5), and He continually shows mercy in forgiveness (1 John 1:9). He extended mercy in protecting Israel—sending prophets to warn them of sin and draw them back to Himself. He still convicts us through the Holy Spirit. His grace and mercy preserves His people.
God shows mercy in His understanding too. Our Great High Priest understands us and calls us to the throne of grace where we can find mercy (Hebrews 4:16). There is also mercy in God’s commission—He wants us to make His mercy look great among the nations (Romans 15:9-13). God even shows loving mercy in His disciplining of us (Hebrews 12:6; Proverbs 3:12).
Wonder of wonders is that God would choose to transform us by His mercies so we can be holy and acceptable to Him (Romans 12:1), worshipping Him in the splendor of holiness (Psalm 96:9). He has truly wrapped His children in mercy from salvation and throughout eternity.
Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Christianity.com and Crosswalk.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.
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