Mercy’s Many Meanings
The Bible teaches us that mercy is one way for God to be gracious and show favor
Father Harry Hagan Comments Off on Mercy’s Many Meanings
Mercy flows like a great river out of the Old Testament into the New, where it overflows its banks. The word “mercy” appears in the New American Bible Revised Edition (2010) 296 times in the Old Testament and another 43 times in the New Testament. Like the Mississippi, which gathers its water from various tributaries, the English word translates several different Hebrew words, as we see in the opening verse of Psalm 51: “Have mercy (ḥanan) on me, God, in accord with your merciful love (ḥesed); / in your abundant compassion (reḥamim) blot out my transgressions” (Ps 51:3).
As Gracious Gift
The opening call for mercy translates to the verb ḥanan, which means “to be gracious, show favor.” This root gives us the names Hannah and John or Johann, meaning “Jo (short from YHWH) is gracious.” A king by his word can grant some favor and change a person’s life. In the Hebrew, God is mainly the verb’s subject. Some 20 times, a psalmist asks God to have “ḥanan on me.” The NABRE translates about half of them as “Be gracious / Show favor to me,” and the other half as “Have mercy on me.” Mercy is one way for God to be gracious and show favor. Mercy is God’s gracious gift.
As Womb Emotion
Jumping down to the third word for mercy in Psalm 51, “compassion” translates reḥamim, which the NABRE often renders as “mercy” and is the standard Hebrew word for “mercy.” It is the plural of reḥem which means “womb.” We could translate the Hebrew to read, “according to your many wombs.” In Hebrew, people felt with their guts. Still, the plural of womb is specific and points us to “womb emotion” — what a mother feels for a child.
In English, mercy can carry a sense of power. The merciful have the power to be merciful. “Womb emotion” moves in a different direction. A mother is merciful not because she is able but because she must. What she feels is spontaneous and instinctive (cf. 1 Kgs 3:26). God’s reḥamim appears nine times in the Book of Psalms: 25:6; 40:12; 51:3; 69:17; 77:10; 79:8; 119:77, 156; and 145:9. The image creates an androgynous sense of Israel’s God — an idea that deserves more attention.
As the Loyal Love of Covenant
The other reference, “merciful love,” translates the Hebrew ḥesed — a word bound to covenant. As my teacher, Father Dennis McCarthy, SJ, insisted, covenant is, first of all, a relationship — not any relationship, but a relationship with a history and ratified by an oath. This relation has stipulations (laws) that define it, and the keeping of the relationship brings a blessing. The central emotion of this relationship is loyal love, as seen in the political treaties of the ancient Near East. Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, has his vassals swear: “You shall love as yourselves” the crown prince (ll. 266-268). The word ḥesed captures the loyal love of both servants and lords for each other. The RSV and NRSV translate it as “steadfast love” in Psalm 51 while the NABRE, following the Greek and Latin, uses “mercy.”
The psalms often pair ḥesed with ˀemet — “steadiness, reliability, fidelity, faithfulness.” This love is abiding and reliable. Psalm 85:11 joins these two words in a clear covenant context: “Love (ḥesed) and truth (ˀemet) will meet; / justice and peace will kiss.”
The union of ḥesed and ˀemet ensures justice, which comes with carrying out the covenant’s stipulations/laws. This, in turn, brings the blessing of shalom — peace. Protection from enemies was central to the various treaties of the ancient Near East, but shalom is more than our English sense of calm and quiet. Shalom names wholeness and prosperity, which form the basis for well-being.
The NABRE also follows the Greek Septuagint and translates ˀemet as “truth” (alētheia). This adds an intellectual layer to the experiential dimension of Hebrew faithfulness.
In the exilic period, the meaning of ḥesed also shifts toward forgiveness. The Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem forced Judah to come to terms with its failure to keep the covenant that stressed loyalty to the Lord alone. In the aftermath, Judah had to face its sin and find a way to reconcile the covenant.
Psalm 85 begins by remembering the past when God forgave “all their sin” and so restored those exiled by God’s wrath:
“You once favored, LORD, your land, / restored the captives of Jacob. / You forgave the guilt of your people, / pardoned all their sins. Selah
“You withdrew all your wrath, / turned back from your burning anger” — vv. 2-4
The past now becomes the foundation for the petition to restore “us”:
“Restore us, God of our salvation; / let go of your displeasure with us.
“Will you be angry with us forever, / prolong your anger for all generations?” — vv. 5-6.
There follows the traditional affirmation of trust:
“Certainly you will again restore our life, / that your people may rejoice in you” — v. 7.
Note the parallel between “life” and “rejoicing,” which gives a clear sense of what it means to be alive. The next verse contains ḥesed, translated as “mercy”:
“Show us, LORD, your mercy (ḥesed); / grant us your salvation” — v. 8.
Here “mercy” and “salvation” form a pair. Forgiveness is an important part of this “mercy,” yet restoration is more. “Salvation” has the same Hebrew root as the name of “Jesus”: yeshaˁ, meaning “help, save, rescue.” Here the Lord must exercise covenant love to forgive and save Judah, not from foreign enemies, but from themselves. By restoring Jacob, the Lord also acknowledges that the covenant continues in force.
We have already looked at the oracle, which follows. It reaffirms the covenant with its faithful love that supports a life of justice, the sure foundation for prosperity and peace.
The final verses of Psalm 85 expand the relationship between truth/faithfulness and justice, bringing the bounty of peace:
“Truth (ˀemet) will spring from the earth; / justice will look down from heaven. / Yes, the LORD will grant his bounty; / our land will yield its produce. / Justice will march before him, and make a way for his footsteps” — vv. 12-14.
In the Book of Psalms, ḥesed, with one exception, becomes, as in this psalm, an attribute of God — what God does to save and redeem Israel. It no longer describes what both parties must do but only what God does. Without exception, the Septuagint translates ḥesed as eleos — mercy.
St. Jerome follows by translating it as misericordia. The translation “mercy” highlights the later emphasis on forgiveness, which pervades the Christian tradition. The Abbey Psalter, the U.S. bishops’ new translation for the revision of the Roman Office, often bridges the earlier and later meanings by translating ḥesed as “merciful love.”
Mercy in the New Testament as Forgiveness and Healing Gift
The Eucharist begins with the surviving Greek: Kyrie, eleison — “Lord, have mercy.” As a result, we connect mercy particularly to forgiveness. Forgiving so that we will be forgiven is central to the proclamation of Jesus (cf. Mt 6:12; Mk 1:4).
However, we find the word eleison in the mouth of the blind Bartimaeus; there is no question of sin but of healing (cf. Mk 10:47-48 and parallels). His cry is more of a cry for gracious favor.
Others also cry out to Jesus “eleison” for the gracious gift of healing: the two blind men, the Canaanite woman, the man with the epileptic son, and the 10 lepers (cf. Mt 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; Lk 17:13).
For these, the NABRE translates eleison as “have pity” — perhaps to avoid the connotation of forgiveness. The NABRE also uses “have pity” to translate an unpronounceable Greek verb splagxnizōmai half the time; the other half, it uses “have compassion.”
The noun, splagxnon, refers to the guts and to gut feeling. It is a parallel to “womb emotion.” In the Gospels, the verb appears in three parables but otherwise refers to Jesus having pity or compassion. When a leper asks Jesus to heal him, Mark tells us: “Moved with pity, [Jesus] stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean’” (Mk 1:41).
The words to have mercy, pity, compassion must be taken together to understand the full range of mercy in the New Testament, which goes beyond forgiveness.
The Mercy of the Magnificat and Benedictus
The word eleos appears as “mercy” four times in the Magnificat and Benedictus. The first, as it stands, seems generic. “His mercy is from age to age / to those who fear him” (Lk 1:50).
However, the lines appear word for word in Ps 103:17, with the next verse defining “those who fear him” as “those who keep his covenant, and remember to carry out his precepts.”
The second has the marks of covenant: “He has helped Israel his servant, / remembering his mercy, / according to his promise to our fathers, / to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Lk 1:54-55).
The words “servant,” “remember” and “promise” — all belong to the language of covenant, and “mercy” (eleos) points us toward the loyal love that requires God to come to Israel’s assistance by overthrowing the mighty and lifting up the lowly.
In the Benedictus, Zachary announces that God has carried out the “promised … salvation”: “to show mercy to our fathers / and to be mindful of his holy covenant / and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, / and to grant us that, rescued from the hand of enemies, / without fear we might worship him in holiness and righteousness / before him all our days” (Lk 1:72-75).
Here salvation from our enemies creates the possibility for us to worship “without fear.”
The last reference in the Benedictus joins eleos — mercy to splagxna — gut emotion to announce the vocation of the child who will prepare the Lord’s way by giving “his people knowledge of salvation / through the forgiveness of their sins, / because of the tender mercy of our God” (Lk 1:77-78).
These two canticles establish covenant love as the basis for God’s salvation in the New Testament, and Luke links this to the Great Commandment.
When a scholar of the law asks which is the greatest commandment, he names the love of God and of neighbor as oneself. To justify himself, the scholar asks who is his neighbor. Jesus replies with the parable in which the Samaritan, moved with compassion (splagxnizomai) rescues the man in the ditch. When Jesus asks the scholar who was the neighbor, he replies, “The one who treated him with mercy (eleos)” (Lk 10:37). While there is reason to connect mercy here to womb emotion, the context of the Great Commandment also points to steadfast love — the central stipulation of the New Covenant.
Some Pastoral Thoughts
Allow me to draw out some implications by looking at St. Benedict’s description of the pastor of the monastery. Though the Roman Empire with its great tradition of law was falling apart, Benedict says of the abbot: “He is to be chaste, temperate, and merciful, and he should always ‘exalt mercy over judgment’ (Jas 2:13) so that he himself may find mercy” (RB 64.9-10).
Surprisingly, Benedict focuses on this line from the Letter of James that exalts mercy over judgment. His reason is significant: “so that he himself may find mercy.” Benedict knows that we all are human and that human beings are fragile. We are all in need of forgiveness, but also of gracious gift, womb emotion and loyal love. The abbot must recognize his need for mercy, so that he may become a well of mercy for others. Even so, Benedict does not make excuses for sin or fragility; rather, he says: “Let him hate their evil ways and love the brothers. Now, when making a correction, let him act prudently and not go to excess, lest in his excessive desire to scrape off the rust, he breaks the pot” (64.11-12).
A broken pot is useless. A broken human being is a broken human being. Benedict reiterates the abbot’s fragility: “Let him always keep his own fragility before his eyes, and let him remember that ‘the bruised reed must not be broken’ (Is 42:3). By this, we are not saying that he should permit evil ways to grow up, but he should cut them off with prudence and love as he sees best for each person, just as we have already said.”
It is no small pastoral task to find the love that is “best for each person.” Pope Francis has invited the priests of the Church to smell like sheep. Surely we are most like one another in that we are all bruised reeds in need of mercy in all its dimensions.
Broadness of Mercy
Biblical mercy is broader and deeper than forgiveness. The English “mercy” translates several Hebrew words. The verb ḥanan asserts mercy as God’s gracious gift. The basic Hebrew word for mercy, reḥamim, is the plural of “womb” and connects mercy to womb emotion — what a mother instinctively feels for the child of her womb. Finally, ḥesed names the loyal love of covenant which in the later period becomes almost exclusively God’s mercy to forgive and save. These shape the many dimensions of mercy in the New Testament.
While an article like this can identify differences, the tradition of translating them with the same word, whether in Greek, Latin or English, emphasizes their connections. There is no one “correct” meaning for mercy; rather, all these pieces mirror the mystery of God’s mercy and salvation. Given this, we must not limit the beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, / for they shall have mercy” (Mt 5:7). Nor should minimize Christ’s command: “Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
FATHER HARRY HAGAN, OSB, is an associate professor of Scripture at Saint Meinrad Seminary in Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Dimensions of Mercy
Father Ronald Witherup, PSS, explores the scriptural dimensions of mercy and their relation to the teaching of Pope Francis in “Mercy and the Bible: Why It Matters” (Paulist Press, $17.95). The book incorporates citations from Pope Francis’ teachings, as well as other Church documents on the topic of mercy. Father Witherup explains that mercy is urgently needed, and he writes, “I have attempted to explain simply and clearly the biblical teaching of mercy, which I find eminently relevant and which, in fact, undergirds Pope Francis’ dramatic call for a more merciful and compassionate Church in the modern world.”