4. The Concept of “Mercy” in the Old Testament

Post02“Christ addressed himself,” writes John Paul II, “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….”

A number of Old Testament scriptures are cited in this early portion of the Pope’s letter, The Mercy of God,  so I will refer to a few in order to encourage the reader to delve into these passages in their entirety, as a personal Bible study.  Many people erroneously believe that “the God of the Old Testament” was vengeful, angry, and harsh, and that it was only when Jesus came and “changed” the doctrines and laws of the people of Israel that a different understanding of the character of God was made known.  To the contrary, Jesus’ teachings about the nature and character of Our Father in heaven was in perfect continuity with the history of the Jewish people and their intimate relationship with our eternal Creator, Redeemer, and Savior.  As Psalm 107, a kind of overview of the early history of Israel, exhorts, O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;  for his steadfast love endures for ever!  Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands….For he satisfies him who is thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things….He delivered them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder….For he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron….Let them…tell of his deeds in songs of joy!

Here are some of the encyclical’s citations:

Judges 3:7-9)   “…And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…But when the people of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer…”

I Kings 8:22-53)   “…Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord…and spread forth his hands toward heaven and said…O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart…”

Micah 7:18-20)   “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?  He does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in steadfast love…He will again have compassion upon us…You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea…”

Nehemiah 9)   “But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…”

Jeremiah 31:20)   “Is Ephraim my dear son?  Is he my darling child?  For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still.  Therefore my heart yearns for him;  I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.”

A recent reading from Isaiah 40 in our Church’s liturgy reminds us that the original picture of the Good Shepherd, which Jesus draws upon in John 10, comes from the Old Testament:  “Behold, the Lord God….will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

The Pope writes, “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…When he finds repentance and true conversion, he brings his people back to grace.  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 the passages which John Paul II cites from the Old Testament, as well as in countless others, we see that the concept of God’s mercy–of his very heart, the heart of a loving parent towards a child–was known from of old in the lived experience of his people throughout the centuries. 

Shalom,  JC