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What is Divine Mercy?

Pope John Paul II

ENCYCLICAL LETTER

Dives in Misericordia
On the Mercy of God

III. THE OLD TESTAMENT

4. The Concept of "Mercy" in the Old Testament

The concept of "mercy" in the Old Testament has a long and rich history. We have to refer back to it in order that the mercy revealed by Christ may shine forth more clearly. By revealing that mercy both through His actions and through His teaching, Christ addressed Himself to people who not only knew the concept of mercy, but who also, as the People of God of the Old Covenant, had drawn from their age - long history a special experience of the mercy of God. This experience was social and communal, as well as individual and interior.

Israel was, in fact, the people of the covenant with God, a covenant that it broke many times. Whenever it became aware of its infidelity - and in the history of Israel there was no lack of prophets and others who awakened this awareness-it appealed to mercy. In this regard, the books of the Old Testament give us very many examples. Among the events and texts of greater importance one may recall: the beginning of the history of the Judges,(31) the prayer of Solomon at the inauguration of the Temple,(32) part of the prophetic work of Micah,(33) the consoling assurances given by Isaiah,(34) the cry of the Jews in exile,(35) and the renewal of the covenant after the return from exile.(36)

It is significant that in their preaching the prophets link mercy, which they often refer to because of the people's sins, with the incisive image of love on God's part. The Lord loves Israel with the love of a special choosing, much like the love of a spouse,(37) and for this reason He pardons its sins and even its infidelities and betrayals. When He finds repentance and true conversion, He brings His people back to grace.(38) In the preaching of the prophets, mercy signifies a special power of love, which prevails over the sin and infidelity of the chosen people.

In this broad "social" context, mercy appears as a correlative to the interior experience of individuals languishing in a state of guilt or enduring every kind of suffering and misfortune. Both physical evil and moral evil, namely sin, cause the sons and daughters of Israel to turn to the Lord and beseech His mercy. In this way David turns to Him, conscious of the seriousness of his guilt(39); Job too, after his rebellion, turns to Him in his tremendous misfortune(40); so also does Esther, knowing the mortal threat to her own people.(41) And we find still other examples in the books of the Old Testament.(42)

At the root of this many-sided conviction, which is both communal and personal, and which is demonstrated by the whole of the Old Testament down the centuries, is the basic experience of the chosen people at the Exodus: the Lord saw the affliction of His people reduced to slavery, heard their cry, knew their sufferings and decided to deliver them.(43) In this act of salvation by the Lord, the prophet perceived his love and compassion.(44) This is precisely the grounds upon which the people and each of its members based their certainty of the mercy of God, which can be invoked whenever tragedy strikes.

Added to this is the fact that sin too constitutes man's misery. The people of the Old Covenant experienced this misery from the time of the Exodus, when they set up the golden calf. The Lord Himself triumphed over this act of breaking the covenant when He solemnly declared to Moses that He was a "God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."(45) It is in this central revelation that the chosen people, and each of its members, will find, every time that they have sinned, the strength and the motive for turning to the Lord to remind Him of what He had exactly revealed about Himself(46) and to beseech His forgiveness.

Thus, in deeds and in words, the Lord revealed His mercy from the very beginnings of the people which He chose for Himself; and, in the course of its history, this people continually entrusted itself, both when stricken with misfortune and when it became aware of its sin, to the God of mercies. All the subtleties of love become manifest in the Lord's mercy towards those who are His own: He is their Father,(47) for Israel is His firstborn son(48); the Lord is also the bridegroom of her whose new name the prophet proclaims: Ruhamah, "Beloved" or "she has obtained pity."(49)

Even when the Lord is exasperated by the infidelity of His people and thinks of finishing with it, it is still His tenderness and generous love for those who are His own which overcomes His anger.(50) Thus it is easy to understand why the psalmists, when they desire to sing the highest praises of the Lord, break forth into hymns to the God of love, tenderness, mercy and fidelity.(51)

From all this it follows that mercy does not pertain only to the notion of God, but it is something that characterizes the life of the whole people of Israel and each of its sons and daughters: mercy is the content of intimacy with their Lord, the content of their dialogue with Him. Under precisely this aspect, mercy is presented in the individual books of the Old Testament with a great richness of expression. It may be difficult to find in these books a purely theoretical answer to the question of what mercy is in itself. Nevertheless, the terminology that is used is in itself able to tell us much about this subject.(52)

The Old Testament proclaims the mercy of the Lord by the use of many terms with related meanings; they are differentiated by their particular content, but it could be said that they all converge from different directions on one single fundamental content, to express its surpassing richness and at the same time to bring it close to man under different aspects. The Old Testament encourages people suffering from misfortune, especially those weighed down by sin — as also the whole of Israel, which had entered into the covenant with God — to appeal for mercy, and enables them to count upon it: it reminds them of His mercy in times of failure and loss of trust. Subsequently, the Old Testament gives thanks and glory for mercy every time that mercy is made manifest in the life of the people or in the lives of individuals.

In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God's justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection nevertheless love is "greater" than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-à-vis justice — this is a mark of the whole of revelation — are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy.(53) Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it, if we admit in the history of man — as the Old Testament precisely does — the presence of God, who already as Creator has linked Himself to His creature with a particular love. Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill — will towards the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, "you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence."(54) These words indicate the profound basis of the relationship between justice and mercy in God, in His relations with man and the world. They tell us that we must seek the life-giving roots and intimate reasons for this relationship by going back to "the beginning," in the very mystery of creation. They foreshadow in the context of the Old Covenant the full revelation of God, who is "love."(55)

Connected with the mystery of creation is the mystery of the election, which in a special way shaped the history of the people whose spiritual father is Abraham by virtue of his faith. Nevertheless, through this people which journeys forward through the history both of the Old Covenant and of the New, that mystery of election refers to every man and woman, to the whole great human family. "I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."(56) "For the mountains may depart...my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed."(57) This truth, once proclaimed to Israel, involves a perspective of the whole history of man, a perspective both temporal and eschatological.(58) Christ reveals the Father within the framework of the same perspective and on ground already prepared, as many pages of the Old Testament writings demonstrate. At the end of this revelation, on the night before He dies, He says to the apostle Philip these memorable words: "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me...? He who has seen me has seen the Father."(59)

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NOTES
31. Cf. Jgs. 3:7-9.
32. Cf. 1 Kgs. 8:22-53.
33. Cf. Mi. 7:18-20.
34. Cf. Is. 1:18; 51:4-16.
35. Cf. Bar. 2:11-3, 8.
36. Cf. Neh. 9.
37. Cf. e.g. Hos. 2:21-25 and 15;Is. 54:6-8.
38. Cf. Jer. 31:20; Lz. 39:25-29.
39. Cf. 2 Sm. 11; 12; 24:10.
40. Job passim.
41. Est.. 4:17k ff.
42. Cf. e.g. Neh. 9:30-32; Tb. 3:2-3, 11-12; 8:16-17; 1 Mc. 4:24.
43. Cf. Ex. 3:7f.
44. Cf. Is. 63:9.
45. Ex. 34:6.
46. Cf. Nm. 14:18; 2 Chr. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86(85); Wis. 15:1; Sir. 2:11; Jl. 2:13.
47. Cf. Is. 63:16.
48. Cf. Ex. 4:22.
49. Cf. Hos. 2:3.
50. Cf. Hos. 11:7-9; Jer. 31:20; Is. 54:7f.
51. Cf. Ps. 103(102) and 145(144).
52. In describing mercy, the books of the Old Testament use two expressions in particular, each having a different semantic nuance. First there is the term "hesed," which indicates a profound attitude of "goodness." When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment, and therefore also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves. Since hesed also means "grace" or "love," this occurs precisely on the basis of this fidelity. The fact that the commitment in question has not only a moral character but almost a juridical one makes no difference. When in the Old Testament the word hesed is used of the Lord, this always occurs in connection with the covenant that God established with Israel. This covenant was, on God's part, a gift and a grace for Israel. Nevertheless, since, in harmony with the covenant entered into, God had made a commitment to respect it, hesed also acquired in a certain sense a legal content. The juridical commitment on God's part ceased to oblige whenever Israel broke the covenant and did not respect its conditions. But precisely at this point, hesed, in ceasing to be a juridical obligation, revealed its deeper aspect: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.

This fidelity vis-à-vis the unfaithful "daughter of my people"(cf. Lam. 4:3, 6) is, in brief, on God's part, fidelity to Himself. This becomes obvious in the frequent recurrence together of the two terms hesed we've met (= grace and fidelity), which could be considered a case of hendiadys (cf. e.g. Ex. 34:6; 2 Sm. 2:6; 15:20; Ps. 25[24]:10; 40[39]:11-12; 85[84]:11; 138[137]:2; Mi. 7:20). "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name" (Ez. 36:22). Therefore Israel, although burdened with guilt for having broken the covenant, cannot lay claim to God's hesed on the basis of (legal) justice; yet it can and must go on hoping and trusting to obtain it, since the God of the covenant is really "responsible for his love." The fruits of this love are forgiveness and restoration to grace, the reestablishment of the interior covenant.

The second word which in the terminology of the Old Testament serves to define mercy is "rahamim." This has a different nuance from that of hesed. While hesed highlights the marks of fidelity to self and of "responsibility for one's own love" (which are in a certain sense masculine characteristics), rahamim, in its very root, denotes the love of a mother (rehem = mother's womb). From the deep and original bond — indeed the unity — that links a mother to her child there springs a particular relationship to the child, a particular love. Of this love one can say that it is completely gratuitous, not merited, and that in this aspect it constitutes an interior necessity: an exigency of the heart. It is, as it were, a "feminine" variation of the masculine fidelity to be self expressed by hesed. Against this psychological background, rahamim generates a whole range of feelings, including goodness and tenderness, patience and understanding, that is, readiness to forgive.

The Old Testament attributes to the Lord precisely these characteristics when it uses the term rahamim in speaking of Him. We read in Isaiah: "Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (Is. 49:15). This love, faithful and invincible thanks to the mysterious power of motherhood, is expressed in the Old Testament texts in various ways: as salvation from dangers, especially from enemies; also as forgiveness of sins — of individuals and also of the whole of Israel; and finally in readiness to fulfill the (eschatological) promise and hope, in spite of human infidelity, as we read in Hosea: "I will heal their faithlessness, I will love them freely" (Hos. 14:5).

In the terminology of the Old Testament we also find other expressions, referring in different ways to the same basic content. But the two terms mentioned above deserve special attention. They clearly show their original anthropomorphic aspect: in describing God's mercy, the biblical authors use terms that correspond to the consciousness and experience of their contemporaries. The Greek terminology in the Septuagint translation does not show as great a wealth as the Hebrew: therefore it does not offer all the semantic nuances proper to the original text. At any rate, the New Testament builds upon the wealth and depth that already marked the Old.

In this way, we have inherited from the Old Testament — as it were in a special synthesis — not only the wealth of expressions used by those books in order to define God's mercy, but also a specific and obviously anthropomorphic "psychology" of God: the image of His anxious love, which in contact with evil, and in particular with the sin of the individual and of the people, is manifested as mercy. This image is made up not only of the rather general content of the verb "hanan" but also of the content of hesed and rahamim. The term hanan expresses a wider concept: it means in fact the manifestation of grace, which involves, so to speak, a constant predisposition to be generous, benevolent and merciful. In addition to these basic semantic elements, the Old Testament concept of mercy is also made up of what is included in the verb "hamal", which literally means "to spare" (a defeated enemy) but also "to show mercy and compassion," and in consequence forgiveness and remission of guilt. There is also the term "hus," which expresses pity and compassion, but especially in the affective sense. These terms appear more rarely in the biblical texts to denote mercy. In addition, one must note the word "emet" already mentioned: it means primarily "solidity, security" (in the Greek of the Septuagint: "truth") and then "fidelity." In this way it seems to link up with the semantic content proper to the term hesed.
53. Ps. 40(39):11; 98(97):2f.; Is. 45:21; 51:5, 8; 56:1.
54. Wis. 11:24.
55. 1 Jn. 4:16.
56. Jer. 31:3.
57. Is. 54:10.
58. Jon. 4:2, 11; Ps. 145(144):9; Sir. 18:8-14; Wis. 11:23-12:1.
59. Jn. 14:9.