Divine Mercy 101: Divine Mercy in the Prophets

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

WEEK 6: Divine Mercy in the Prophets

In the Biblical concept, Divine Mercy is expanded. First, there is the promise that God's mercy will be showered not only upon the Israelites, but one day upon all the Gentile nations as well. Secondly, the People of Israel are encouraged not only to believe in Divine Mercy and to call upon the Lord, but also to be merciful, that is, to live mercifully.

The prophet Isaiah, for example, continually encourages the Israelites to trust in God's mercy: "Then a throne will be established in steadfast love [hesed] and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness."

Isaiah teaches them that they must wait patiently for God's mercy to manifest itself, even as He has waited patiently for their conversion (38:10): "Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him." 

When the Lord does pour out His mercy upon Israel, however, He will do so in abundance (40: 29-31):

He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted.
But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.
They shall run and not be weary.
They shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah also prophesies the coming of the Suffering Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, who will obtain mercy for all by his sufferings (Is 53: 3-6):

He was despised and rejected by men;
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And as one from whom men hide their faces
He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
Upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole,
And with His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to His own way;
And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 

Finally, through the work of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, Israel is to fulfil the full scope of her vocation: to bring the salvation of the Lord to all the Gentile nations. In Isaiah 49:6, the Lord says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." 

The theme of Divine Mercy recurs throughout the prophets. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, for example, the Lord promised the joyful return of Israel from exile (31:3): " I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness [hesed] to you." In other words, God's love is the root of His mercy; because He loves, He is merciful to Israel. 

The prophet Joel repeats the refrain about the Lord's mercy that we have already seen so often, stemming from Mt. Sinai (Joel 2:12-13): 

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
And rend your hearts and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love ... 

The prophet Jonah speaks in a similar manner (Jonah 4:2):

I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country. That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love ...

Indeed, throughout the entire history of Israel, and especially in the era of the prophets, at every major event or crisis point, it was the mercy of the Lord that the Israelites remembered, and on the basis of which they made their prayerful appeals. For example, here is the opening line of the prayer of King Solomon at the moment of the dedication of the Great Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:23): "O Lord God of Israel, there is no God like Thee, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love [hesed] to Thy servants who walk before Thee with all their heart ..." 

Here is the cry of the Jews for mercy when they were languishing in exile in Babylon (Bar 2:11-3:8): "Hear, O Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned before Thee. For Thou art enthroned forever, and we are perishing forever." The elderly Tobit also exalts God's mercy, in expectation of His blessings upon His scattered people (Tobit 13:4-5):

Make His greatness known there [before all nations], and exalt Him in the presence of all the living; because He is our Lord and God, He is our Father forever. He will afflict us for our iniquities; and again He will show mercy, and will gather us from all the nations among whom you have been scattered.

Finally, here are the words of the renewal of Israel's covenant with God after the return of the Jews from exile to the Holy Land (Neh 9:31): "Nevertheless, in Thy great mercies Thou didst not make an end of them nor forsake them; for Thou art a gracious and merciful God." 

We can sum up the message of Divine Mercy in the Old Testament with the words of Pope John Paul II from his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (section 4): 

Thus, in deeds and in words the Lord revealed His mercy from the 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...

The Old Testament encourages people suffering from misfortune, especially those weighed down by sin - as also the whole of Israel, which had entered into 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... 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... 

This series continues next week on the theme, "Divine Mercy in the New Testament."

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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