Mercy is a translation of the Hebrew cheseḏ (H2617), which is “one of the most important [words] in the vocabulary of OT theology and ethics,” appearing some 240 times, most frequently in the Psalms. It speaks of kindness, loving-kindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, loyal love, and acts of kindness. While the word is used for kindness one person might show another, such as David’s kindness to Mephibosheth, the son of David’s dear friend Jonathan (2Sa_9:7), it is God’s mercy to man that stands out.
If there is a single word, in fact, that could summarize God’s dealing with His people, it would be the word mercy. One example, and by far the most notable appearance of cheseḏ, is in Psalms 136, where the psalmist declares twenty-six times of God, “His mercy endureth for ever.” This psalm is a study in worship, with God’s mercy at the forefront, displaying what wondrous works He has done. Mercy is at the foundation of His character (Psa_136:1-3), the function of His creative work (Psa_136:4-9), the fountain from which all His blessings flow to His people (Psa_136:10-25), and the force behind His Rulership in heaven (Psa_136:26).
The greatest manifestation of God’s mercy, of course, is that of redemption, His saving men from sin (Psa_51:1, “lovingkindness”, Psa_86:13). We are always struck by Jonah’s opposition to going to the unimaginably wicked Assyrians at Nineveh. Because he knew that God was a God of “kindness” (loyal love, committed to the objects of His love) and would save those pagans when they didn’t (in Jonah’s thinking) deserve it (Jon_4:2).
It is also noteworthy that with few exceptions, the Septuagint translates cheseḏ with the common Greek word eleos (G1656), which speaks of “kindness or good will towards the miserable and afflicted, joined with a desire to relieve them.” The whole point of mercy, therefore, is to relieve the affliction that man suffers because he cannot relieve it himself. Mercy is always to the helpless.
With God’s mercy as our model, we are to show mercy to others. “Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and show mercy [i.e., covenant loyalty manifested in love] and compassions every man to his brother” (Zec_7:9; Jas_2:13-17). Judgment, in fact, is reserved for those who do not show mercy and kindness (Psa_109:16).
Scriptures for Study: What does Psa_103:8 say about God and mercy? What is the prerequisite for God’s mercy in Psa_32:10?