Mercy in the Bible is an action word which points to showing compassion to the suffering. Mercy is both a divine attribute and a human quality.
The biblical definition of mercy is quite colorful.
What is the Biblical definition of mercy?
A variety of English words have been used for mercy as it is presented in the Bible.
Synonyms for mercy include compassion, steadfast love, favor, loving-kindness.
Depending on the context of the verse, there is a different dimension of mercy that is presented.
Let’s look at some Old and New Testament verses to get a broader idea.
Mercy in Hebrew
One of the most popular stories in the Bible is the David and Bathsheba saga. After David was confronted about his sin of adultery and murder, he ran to God in prayer.
In the first sentence of his prayer, David asks for mercy three times:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Psalm 51:1
I know, the word mercy only appears twice but stick with me and I will explain.
Although the word mercy appears twice in David’s prayer, there are two different Hebrew words that he uses.
The first mercy is the Hebrew word khanan.
Have mercy [khanan] on me, O God,..
Khanan means to be gracious or to show favor. More specifically, it means to grant favor especially when it is not deserved.
David knew his status before God and so he knew exactly what he needed to ask for: undeserved favor.
Sounds alot like grace, right?
I’ll soon get the difference between grace and mercy but for now let’s look at the next use of the word mercy.
The second mercy that David uses is the Hebrew word rakham.
…according to your abundant mercy [rakham] blot out my transgressions.
Rhakham means to have compassion. It paints the picture of a womb in action, nurturing, protecting, and cherishing a fetus. It is kind of a mothering quality.
Rakham carries the idea of having very deep feelings towards someone. But, that emotion moves so deeply (at the depth of a womb) that one is moved to be caring and to protect and provide for the helpless.
So, not only does he beg for favor that he knows he does not deserve, but David also pleads with God to extend the aspect of His mercy that provides help and nurturing to the vulnerable and needy.
David recognized his very deep need to be saved from his sins. So, he cried out to God in prayer for it.
Now for the third use of the word mercy.
David asks God for mercy according to your steadfast love. The phrase steadfast love is the Hebrew word hesed. This word can also be translated as mercy.
Here is another example of this:
It is of the Lord’s mercies [hesed] that we are not consumed, because his compassions [rakham] fail not. (Lamentations 3:22) KJV
The Hebrew word for mercy used here is hesed. It means loving-kindness or acts of kindness (in this context).
Hesed describes God’s faithful, loyal love towards us. It paints the picture of a love that is unconditional, persistent and tender but one that is also kind and giving.
Now that we have a picture of mercy in the Old Testament, how about the New Testament?
Mercy in Greek
In Greek, the word mercy is eleos. It means to feel such a deep sense of pity towards someone in misery that one is moved to show kindness or give actual help in order to relieve suffering.
Mercy is more than just an emotional stirring. It is a combination of an emotional response plus a stirring to action.
The ultimate expression of eleos in the New Testament is God’s work for our salvation.
he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy [eleos]… Titus 3:5 NIV
Because of sin, we found ourselves in a desperately helpless situation. We were suffering under the weight and consequences of sin.
But because of God’s eleos, we were relieved of our suffering through what Jesus did for us. Now, whenever we sin we can:
…approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy [eleos] and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16 NIV
Because of God’s divine mercy you don’t have to live a life filled with suffering and constant need.
There is another option. We have help and relief through Christ.
What does Jesus teach about mercy?
Jesus taught that mercy should be a part of the practice of those who believe in Him. He taught this using the parable of the good Samaritan.
Although we don’t think about it in that way, this is one of the most powerful stories about mercy in the Bible
At the end of the story when Jesus asked who in the story was a good neighbor, this is what happened:
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy [eleos] on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:37
Having mercy is about meeting the needs of people who are suffering. This is what believers have been called to do, regardless of who the needy person is or what they have done to find themselves in need.
Mercy does not look at race, gender, social status, religious belief etc. None of the things that make us different are good reasons to not show mercy.
The only thing that qualifies a person to receive mercy is to be in need.
Nowadays, the importance of mercy cannot be emphasized enough. We have become so cold and selfish, even towards those who suffer.
But God still wants us to be moved by the suffering and needs of others and to do something to provide relief.
The difference between grace and mercy
Grace and mercy are related terms. They can be considered sides of the same coin. And they are very much overlapping.
Grace has to do with receiving what you don’t deserve while mercy is not receiving what you do deserve.
Let me explain further.
When Adam and Eve sinned, we all became guilty of sin. What we deserved was suffering and eternal death without the remote possibility of accessing salvation.
Jesus endured the ordeal of being arrested (although He was not guilty), of being stripped down to his birthday suite, flogged mercilessly, hung up on a dirty cross with his dignity exposed, and died a slow and painful death.
That is what should have happened to you and me. That is what we deserved.
But God’s mercy stepped in and absolutely not! Do you know the Cece Winans song Mercy Said No?
What we deserved was suffering and death but God did not deliver that to us. He had mercy on us.
Then God’s grace stepped in again and gave us the gift of abundant, eternal life, something that we did not deserve.
In extending to us the undeserved gift of salvation (grace), God was showing kindness and compassion (mercy).
So, as a result of sin, we should be suffering. But God has snatched us away from that and is instead providing for our every need.
Final words on what is mercy in the Bible.
Mercy is one of the most powerful concepts in the Bible. I pray you will look over your life and recognize God’s mercy.
Also, remember that God’s tool of mercy on earth is you and me. When we minister to those who suffer, that is an act of mercy that God deeply approves of.