LCN Article
Blessed Are the Merciful

May / June 2019

Peter G. Nathan

All of us like to be on the receiving end of mercy, but in the fifth beatitude, Jesus explains that there is a condition attached to this: If we want mercy, then we must ourselves be merciful!

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7).

To be merciful is simply to show or exercise mercy.

The eight beatitudes have to do with our own personal approach to our relationship with God. However, the last four additionally involve how we interact with our fellow humans—our relationships with and duties toward them. So, this fifth beatitude shifts our focus to include how we deal with others.

So how do we go about fulfilling the condition necessary to receive mercy? And what exactly did Jesus mean by the word “merciful”?

Mercy Defined

The way we use the words “mercy” and “being merciful” shapes our understanding of the terms. We usually see them in a legal sense, and so attach a forensic meaning to them. Rather interestingly, this view was influenced by Shakespeare, who, in the courtroom scene of The Merchant of Venice, described mercy as the opposite of justice. As a result, our understanding of mercy has largely equated it with forgiveness, especially forgiveness of a perceived injustice. So if we were to translate Matthew 5:7 into the vernacular, it would probably read: “Blessed are those that forgive, for they shall be forgiven.”

But if this is our view of mercy, then we are short-changing what our Father intends, because it is an incomplete view, arising partly out of a mistranslation of the word.

Our problems continue. We speak in the English language of the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, but in Hebrew, the seat is called Kafforet, which is the Hebrew word for atonement, not mercy. The English translators of the King James Version of the Bible translated this word as mercy, but, in so doing, they obscured the meaning of the original Hebrew and added to our misunderstanding of what mercy really means. However, such a misinterpretation is not surprising considering the English etymology of the word. Merriam-Webster provides this background:

Mercy: Middle English, from Anglo-French merci, from Medieval Latin merced-, merces, from Latin, price paid, wages, from merc-, merx, merchandise.

Hence its usage:

  1. a: compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power; also: lenient or compassionate treatment “begged for mercy”; b: imprisonment rather than death imposed as penalty for first-degree murder.
  2. a: a blessing that is an act of divine favour or compassion; b: a fortunate circumstance “it was a mercy they found her before she froze.”
  3. compassionate treatment of those in distress “works of mercy among the poor.”

British dictionaries are even more direct, as the Oxford Dictionary sets out:

mercy /ˈməːsi /
(plural mercies)
[mass noun] compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm:
the boy was screaming and begging for mercy

Yet “mercy” in the primary sense the word is used today—the legal sense, to signify forgiveness—is rarely the intended meaning in the New Testament where the word is often found in our translations. Rather, the quality of mercy is far broader than we think. Although the term merciful is used in the context of forgiveness, we need to look at the rest of Scripture to fully understand what being merciful is all about.

A Word of Challenging Depth

In the Old Greek translation of the Old Testament, which subsequently came to be known as the Septuagint, or LXX, the first occasion where we find the Greek term that is often translated as “merciful” (as used in the beatitude of Matthew 5:7) is in Exodus 22:26–27.

If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious [or merciful].

Here, the Greek word often translated “merciful” is translated “gracious.” The English Standard Version translates it “compassionate.” So, we might state that for those early translators, there was an understanding that being merciful reflected the idea found in the first use of the term in the Bible—that of the Eternal’s gracious and compassionate character. That idea appears in the next usage in the Septuagint, as well.

And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7).

In reading verses 7–9, we should note that there are at least two additional Hebrew words that connote the idea of forgiveness—translated “forgiving iniquity” in verse 7 and “pardon our iniquity” in verse 9:

So Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. Then he said, “If now I have found grace in Your sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray, go among us, even though we are a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your inheritance” (Exodus 34:8–9).

The aspect of forgiveness is well covered within God’s character, but this also points us to the fact that being merciful is much more than forgiveness. In fact, if we look at some of the usages of the word “merciful” in Scripture, we find it has some interesting associations:

I love the Lord, because He has heard My voice and my supplications…. I found trouble and sorrow….  Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me. Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 116:1–9, emphasis added).

God’s mercy here is characterized by His preservation of the simple, His saving of those in need, and His bountiful dealings with His people.

The Scripture also reveals that mercy is an integral part of the covenant relationship, as these verses show:

Now do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord; and enter His sanctuary, which He has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, that the fierceness of His wrath may turn away from you. For if you return to the Lord, your brethren and your children will be treated with compassion by those who lead them captive, so that they may come back to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn His face from you if you return to Him (2 Chronicles 30:8–9).

The Hebrews well understood the concept of being merciful and the Hebrew language effectively expresses it. Their understanding of the concept influenced the Hebrew writers, under inspiration, to frequently associate the word for “mercy” with the one for “graciousness,” often coupling the words together.

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant, and save the son of your maidservant (Psalm 86:15–16, ESV, emphasis added).

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy… toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities [or “shows compassion toward”] those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust (Psalm 103:8–14, emphasis added).

So the characteristic of being merciful is closely linked with that of being gracious.

Insight from Its Origins

Knowledge of the etymology or derivation of the Hebrew word for merciful will also help shape our understanding of the term. The word often translated “mercy” and “merciful” is related to the Hebrew term for the womb, both being derived from the same root. Hence, a sense of protection and nurturing are an essential part of the idea of being merciful.

The depth of this love is shown by the connection of this word with reḥem/raḥam. Compare: Isaiah (49:15) who uses it of a mother’s love toward her nursing baby. It can also refer to a father’s love (Psalm 103:13) (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament).

Interestingly, in both the Spanish and French languages, the terms “mercy” and “merciful” carry this same focus on compassion, rather than the “legal” sense so often conveyed by the English use of the word.

As we have seen already, the translators have not consistently rendered the term “compassionate” as “merciful.” Several times in the Old Testament, the English word “merciful” is translated from another Hebrew expression, hesed (e.g., Jeremiah 3:12; Proverbs 11:17). Actually, in the Psalm that most frequently uses the term “mercy” in most translations (Psalm 136), the word is in fact translated from this Hebrew term, hesed. This is one of the most difficult Hebrew terms to translate, since, biblically, it is used only of the Godhead and lacks the sort of connections to descriptions of humans that the word for “mercy” possesses.

Normally translated in English as “compassion” or “mercy,” the word hesed more correctly corresponds to the concept of grace as it is used in the New Testament. (See the article “Charis, Hesed, Law and Grace” in the November-December 2014 Living Church News, for more information.) Throughout this current article, I have been careful to choose instances where the underlying Hebrew or Greek corresponds to the sense of “mercy” or “merciful” that is intended in the beatitude of Matthew 5:7. To do further study on your own, use a good concordance to ensure that the English translation reflects the correct word.

Ultimately Not a Human Quality

Mercy, as described in Scripture, is a quality that is associated with godly character. Indeed, you may be surprised to learn that although God’s word does occasionally speak in general of people with this quality (see 1 Kings 20:31, for example), it almost never singles out any specific human being, not even David, a man after God’s own heart, as being merciful. The only exception to this, of course, is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17).

Although we find many examples throughout the Bible of God’s mercy, and examples in the New Testament of Christ’s mercy, examples of human beings being merciful to one another are very rare. In fact, Paul makes it clear that not being merciful is one of the results of being cut off from God.

And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful…. (Romans 1:28–31).

We see, then, that the fifth beatitude describes a quality that does not come to humans naturally. Mercy is an aspect of godly character that we must take on as part of our own character. It is something we must internalize, guiding our thinking processes and actions. And of course, this is something that can only happen in its fullness after we have received God’s Holy Spirit—the gift of which is another example of God’s mercy!

hands holding a tree

God’s Mercy Toward Us

As the Apostle Paul explains, it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). And later in that epistle, referring to Exodus 33:18–19, he says this:

For He [God] says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy (Romans 9:15–16).

So our very calling is an act of God’s mercy and graciousness toward us!

It is incredible that the God of all power, the Great God of the Universe, would extend this degree of mercy to us mere mortals! Yet He does, and He also expresses His compassion, graciousness, and mercy to us in many other ways, as we have seen.

And this is the kind of mercy that He expects us to show to others. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Blessed are the merciful.” As He went on to tell His disciples: “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Reflecting the Father

The quality of mercy, as discussed in the fifth beatitude, encompasses more than simply a relationship with justice. Certainly, that is a factor in how we currently use the word, but the act of showing mercy goes much further than this.

Being merciful has to do with our sense of caring, nurturing, and compassion for one another. Our Father’s willingness to forgive is an expression of that compassion (John 3:16). It is the godly act of showing other human beings, created in the image of the God, the same care and concern that the Father has for His creation, the work of His hands. And as we take on this godly attribute and learn how to be merciful—as our Father in Heaven is—then we will, in turn, receive the mercy from Him that we desire and need so very much.

We will look at one last scripture that relates to the situation in the Laodicean era of the Church of God. We are well aware of the correction given by Jesus Christ to His Church. In that correction He notes that the Laodiceans are “miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). The term miserable means without mercy! In a day and age when the Laodicean attitude prevails, it is essential that we seek to understand the place of mercy in our lives.