Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. [Psalm 51:1 ESV – To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba]
Our world sees needing mercy as weakness, something the strong does for those unable to do for themselves but only when they want. There is no compunction to offer mercy, no social obligation, no legal demand. Mercy becomes a symbol of control and a check put on a score card. We like it when we see people showing mercy to others. We wonder why many of those who need mercy have allowed themselves to come to the place of need. Even God says “I will show mercy to whom I show mercy” [Exodus 33:19 ESV]. We read into His words the implication He doesn’t have to show mercy to anyone. Even though we need His mercy. Nevertheless, He is the ultimate example of our obligation to show mercy to others.
We are only half right. We show mercy to others because He has shown mercy to us first. He is our example and the standard against which the evidence of our lives is measured. But I think we have misunderstood and misinterpreted His words to Moses. His showing mercy is not arbitrary, controlled by a whim or hormonal fluctuations. There are absolute circumstances where He shows mercy. There are absolute circumstances where He removes His mercy. He has stated these circumstances, made known His demands and expectations, defined His law and statutes and given both circumstances for compliance and rebellion. We do not judge Him.
In the Hebrew Scriptures most of the verses using the word “mercy” are found in the Psalms and Prophets. Mercy becomes a substantial yet poetic word used to describe God’s compassion shown to us. There are several Hebrew words used. One, racham, has the positive connotation of loving deeply and compassionately, with affection. Another, chanan, means to show favor or pity, gracious attention and consideration, generally toward one who is in great need. Both words are verbs and show an act of the will from one toward another.
In the Greek New Testament only one significant word is used for mercy, eleeo, which means to show favor toward someone afflicted or wretched and in the greatest need. Again, it is a verb showing an act of the will from one toward another.
Mercy is relational. It is active love shown by God to all. It is the active love those who are His show to each other and to those who continually rebel against Him. It is a realization of the need for God’s active love, an understanding of the consequences of our need and a humble acceptance.
David knew he was sinning when he had Uriah murdered and then took Bathsheba as his wife. He knew the law and had a personal relationship with God. His faith in God was strong. It is not the sin which corrupted his flesh was stronger but his resolve to sin, his decision to sin and rebel against God, was more important to him than his desire to love God. He wanted to sin and God did not stop him. The ramifications of sin and the response of God to sin is too large for this small essay. David asked for mercy knowing intimately the consequences of his sin. David asked for mercy knowing God had shown His mercy to David all along. The only way David could express the depth of his misery over his sin, the crushing need for God’s mercy and acceptance, is through poetic words filled with emotion.
The Academic may dissect mercy, separating its various parts and discovering how each part works with the other. The student may learn all about mercy and how it should work in the cold environment of the lab or from the sterile pages of a textbook. But those who know mercy can only cry out in their hearts in fear of God’s wrath, in receiving God’s love through repentance and faith and in acceptance of His eternal compassion.
David expressed his deepest feelings through poetry. We don’t all need to write poetry to feel or to express our feelings. We all do need to think and feel as the whole person God has made us. We all do need to weep with mourning over sin and weep for joy in God’s mercy.
Lord, don’t let my thinking be devoid of feeling.
Have mercy on me, O God [Psalm 51:1 ESV]
And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. [2 Samuel 12:15-16 ESV]
David asked for mercy for his child, conceived through an adulterous affair resulting in the murder of his lovers husband. Yet, the child died. It was David and Bathsheba who sinned yet it was the child who died. Did God not show His mercy to the child? Ultimately, the momentary affliction of sickness to death brought the child into the presence of God. Then, David sought mercy for himself. In both cases, God showed mercy to those He loves.
Still, you will find this refrain throughout the Psalms and the Gospels. God’s people continually cried out to Him for mercy. His people are afflicted, assaulted, hurt and grieving and they cry out to God for His mercy while requesting God kill and destroy those who are afflicting and assaulting them. They want His mercy and for Him to not show mercy to those against them, causing their pain and discomfort. This is an enigma which I do not understand.
Many seek God mercy and then either accept it or reject it because His mercy does not fit their expectations. In the broadest sense His mercy is shown to every man every day, to every person, even when they do not realize it. As an integral part of common grace God’s mercy is given to the ignorant, the hypocrite and those who catch only a glimmer of His compassion. The righteous Judge shows mercy to all by not executing judgment against all. It is mercy which brings a condemned sinner into the presence of God. Yet, most will not recognize His mercy.
We are under God’s condemnation because of sin. Most people in this world, having dispensed with the knowledge of God in their rebellion, live in fear of the superstitious. They have replaced the truth of God with a lie of their own invention, accepting the lie as truth. To say you believe in superstitions, something foisted upon an unsuspecting, even innocent, people, denies the image of God in man which witnesses the truth of God. Yet, God continues allowing the superstitious to live using fear to drive them toward Himself. He prompts them with His Spirit to see the truth. Those who die saying the truth of the Spirit is a lie, die physically and spiritually. There comes a place where God’s mercy ceases and His wrathful judgment is exercised.
How do we know God shows Himself and His Spirit shows the truth to those in rebellion? He has told us.
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.[Genesis 15:5-6 ESV]
But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. [Job 32:8 ESV]
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. [Psalm 19:1-3 ESV]
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. [Romans 1:19-20 ESV]
What about the hypocrite, specifically the religious hypocrite? Those who say with their mouths they are following God, who even demonstrates religious piety, while continuing to rebel against God in their hearts. They recognize the concept of mercy without demonstrating they have received mercy. Jesus’ strongest words were not against “sinners” and “tax-collectors” and “prostitutes”, or even against the Roman occupiers who controlled Judah and Jerusalem. His most critical words were against the religious leaders.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. [Matthew 23:13-15 ESV (and following)].
Although receiving God’s mercy and grace they showed none to those who did not fit their expectations. By seeking to control others they try to control God and show they have no understanding of God’s grace and mercy.
Those who catch only a glimmer of God’s mercy need only that glimmer. It is enough for them to honestly see themselves as God sees them, desperately wicked, black with sin as with leprosy, totally depraved, completely unable to do anything righteous. But, a glimmer of God’s mercy also shows them how much God loves them. Though sentenced to death, eternal separation from God who is the source of life, His Son took upon Himself the judgment due me. In exchange for my sin He gave me His righteousness. His mercy is given and received, not earned or bought.
How do I know I have, or anyone has, received God’s mercy. Because I want to give others what God has given me. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” [Matthew 5:7 ESV].