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Divine Mercy in Scripture

Based on Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia)—Footnotes #52, 60, 61

"... 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."

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"(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 (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."

While "hesed" highlights the marks of fidelity to self and of "responsibility for one's own love," "rahamim," in its very root, denotes the love of a mother.

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 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 those 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 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.

The term "hanan" expresses a wider concept: it means in fact the manifestation of grace ... a constant predisposition to be generous, benevolent and merciful.

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." 60. In both places it is a case of "hesed," i.e., the fidelity that God manifests to His own love for the people, fidelity to he promises that will find their definitive fulfillment precisely in the motherhood of the Mother of God (Lk. 1:49-54). 61. (Lk. 1:72). Here too it is a case of mercy in the meaning of "hesed," insofar as in the following sentences, in which Zechariah speaks of the "tender mercy of our God," there is clearly expressed the second meaning, namely, "rahamim" (Latin translation: "viscera misericordiae"), which rather identifies God's mercy with a mother's love.

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