By Timothy P. Hadley
God’s mercy is a major theme in Scripture. The English word appears 341 times in the Bible while the four Hebrew and three Greek words associated with it appear a total of 454 times. They are also translated as “kindness,” “loving-kindness,” “goodness,” “favor,” “compassion” and “pity.” Of the 66 books in the Bible, only 16 do not use one of these words for mercy.
We often think that justice and judgment characterize the God of Israel while grace and mercy belong to the Lord of the Church. However, the Old Testament has more than four times as much to say about mercy than the New Testament. Exodus 33:19 and 34:6-7 show us that mercy is the very nature of who God is:
- “Then He said, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’” (NKJV).
- “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.’”
While mercy is an important concept, it is somewhat difficult to define, especially since “grace” is often closely coupled with it and the two are frequently confused. These words may appear together many times, but they do not have the same meaning. “Grace” is most often associated with the sovereign dispensing of totally undeserved favor, and it is specifically connected to salvation. “Mercy” is more often connected to the withholding of judgment: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:13).
Psalm 136 repeats the theme “For His mercy endures forever” in each of the 26 verses listing incomparable aspects of God’s loving-kindness to Israel. No less than four times do we read “Give thanks to the Lord … for His mercy endures forever” (vv.1,3) or “Give thanks to the God … for His mercy endures forever” (vv.2,26). Not only does His mercy endure forever, but we are told His mercy is “great” (1 Ki. 3:6), “abundant” (Ps. 86:5; 1 Pet. 1:3), “tender” (Lk. 1:78), “from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:17) and “manifold,” or having many features (Neh. 9:19). We can join with the psalmist and say, “I will sing aloud of Your mercy” (Ps. 59:16).
As we study the Scriptures carefully concerning the mercy of God we will see that there are three parts to it:
- The general mercy of God. This is extended not only to all men – believers and unbelievers alike – but to the entire creation. “The LORD is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Ps. 145:9). “He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25).
- The special mercy of God. It is exercised toward the children of men, helping them and giving them all the necessities of life. “For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt. 5:45).
- The sovereign mercy of God. This is reserved for the heirs of salvation and is communicated to them in a covenant way through the Mediator.
Just to explain the difference between the second and third types a bit more, the mercies of God that the wicked enjoy are only temporary – they are for the present. There will be no mercy extended to them beyond the grave. Isaiah 27:11 says, “For it is a people of no understanding; therefore He who made them will not have mercy on them, and He who formed them will show them no favor.” God can never cease to be merciful because that is the nature of who He is: “Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; Yes, our God is merciful” (Ps. 116:5). But the exercise of His mercy is regulated by His sovereign will. It is pure sovereign grace alone which determines the activity of divine mercy. Paul brings this out in Romans 9:15: “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy” (see Ex. 33:19).
God’s Mercy With Sinners
The connection between the mercy and grace of God in His dealings with sinners is seen in Scriptures such as Ephesians 2:4-8: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” Titus 3:3-7 adds, “For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
It is through or because of the tender mercy of our God that Christ was sent here to His people (Lk. 1:78). The merits of the Lord Jesus and His finished work on the cross make it possible for God to righteously show mercy to us. If God gave us what we deserve we would all be, right now, condemned for eternity. David cried out, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps. 51:1-2). A plea to God for mercy is asking Him to withhold the judgment we deserve and instead grant to us the forgiveness we in no way earned. God shows mercy to the truly repentant soul!
We deserve nothing from God. God does not owe us anything. Whatever good we experience is a result of the grace of God (Eph. 2:5). God favors – He gives us good things that we do not deserve and could never earn. Mercy and grace are best illustrated in the salvation that is available through Jesus Christ. We deserve judgment, but if we receive Jesus Christ as Savior we obtain mercy from God and are delivered from judgment. By grace we receive salvation, forgiveness of sins and an abundant life which begins here as we enjoy a relationship with God as our Father, looking forward to eternity in heaven with Him.
Our Response Toward The God Of Mercy
Because of the mercy and grace of God we fall on our knees in worship and thanksgiving. We remember that “through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23). Micah said, “Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity … because He delights in mercy … He will … have compassion on us, and He will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:18-19). It’s good to recall that “the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children” (Ps. 103:17).
Because He is the “King eternal, immortal, invisible … God who alone is wise” (1 Tim. 1:17) and “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (6:15), we should therefore “give thanks to the Lord of lords! For His mercy endures forever” (Ps. 136:3).
Mercy Is Still Available Today
There are three specific examples given in Psalm 136 of God’s sovereign provision:
- He protects and shelters during the “wilderness” (v.16) journey of His people,
- He makes possible victories over great “enemies” (v.24), and
- He gives “food to all flesh” (v.25).
The details of God’s provision and the many examples in Scripture are inexhaustible. Yet in these three areas we find hope for any situation. Hebrews 4:16 declares, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The apostle Paul reminds us that our God is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Mercy originates from Him, and as we experience His mercy and comfort we should share them with others.
Mercy On Display
Mercy is to be seen in the life of every believer. A great example of such mercy is found in Luke 10:25-37, where we read about a traveler who helped a man who had been beaten and robbed. As the Good Samaritan bound up the wounds of the poor victim, he showed him mercy. When he took him to the nearest inn and paid for his lodging until he was well, he showed grace. His mercy relieved the pain and his grace provided for the healing!
Likewise, the most obvious way we can show mercy is through physical acts. As the Lord Jesus specifically commanded, we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned and give practical help where we can. In Matthew 5:7 the Lord said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Showing mercy is not only a New Testament idea – look at what Deuteronomy 15:7-8 has to say about it: “If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs.”
We are to show mercy to those who seem to be our enemies, according to Luke 6:27-36. Paul wrote: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Col. 3:12-13).
We recognize from these verses that mercy is to be shown by our attitude as well as our actions. Mercy does not hold a grudge, harbor resentment, capitalize on another’s failures or weaknesses, nor publicize another’s sin.
Mercy shows pity as the Lord Jesus did from the cross when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Lk. 23:34). To the repentant thief on the cross mercy could say, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (v.43).
Mercy should be seen in the way we correct one another: “… in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). Jude 21-23 picks up on the same thought: “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.”
The Lord Jesus told a parable about an unforgiving servant. One servant owed his master a great debt that he could not pay and he begged his master to be patient with him. He begged for mercy! But once forgiven, he went to someone who owed him far less by comparison. Demanding every cent be repaid, he had this debtor thrown into prison. When the master heard the story he “called him [and] said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’” (Mt. 18:32-33).
As we have seen we have been shown unlimited mercy, cancelling our debt of sin that we are unable to repay. We continue to be shown mercy each and every day. How can we then refuse to show mercy to those we meet in our lives? Not only does this include praying for one another, but we should also show mercy in reaching out to the lost.
Let us remind ourselves again of Jeremiah’s words: “Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).